The Writing Disorder




New Nonfiction


by Shay Belisle

      The sun is going down and I’m cold and scared. I sit down under the big jacaranda tree and squish a delicate purple blossom into slime between my fingers then wipe it’s ruined beauty on the grass.
      As usual, my dad is late to pick me up from school. This time, he is really late. Even the people who work in the school office have gone home for the weekend. Before she left, Miss Judy asked if I wanted her to call my dad but I told her he doesn’t have a phone and he’s always late but he will be here soon. But soon is long gone.
      I wonder if she will ever come or if I will have to try to survive until Monday when all the teachers and kids finally come back. I imagine myself rummaging through the lost and found for warm clothes that smell of mold and rotten soup. What will I eat? I can search through the lunch boxes kid left behind. Or I maybe I can find some food in the garden. But there isn’t much there except for lettuce and green cherry tomatoes. My dad’s probably “south,” his code word for going to tend his marijuana patch. I can picture him out there in the kiawe trees, carefully watering them from a big plastic jug he carries on his back that is a mix of water and fertilizer. He crouches down, pushing his gold wire-rimmed glasses up on his nose and squints as he examines the buds for mold and bugs. The late afternoon sun is filtering through the trees covering everything is a golden glow. This is the color of day that should remind him that I am waiting. He should look up at the sky and see that the sun is gone and know that his little girl is cold and scared. But he’s only thinking of the plants.
      Usually he’s late but this is really late. Will he ever come? Just then I hear something rustle in the bushes nearby and a shiver runs through my body. I pull my scabby knees up under my tie-dye sweater and rock back and forth to keep the cold and the fear out. But I feel the tears coming and I fight to hold them back. Then faintly, in the distance, I hear a high-pitched squeal and I know I’m saved. The squeal grows into a scream as my dad’s rusty, brown Datsun pickup truck comes flying into view. He jumps out, hair wild and filled with sticks and leaves. His rough hands, holey green shirt and Levi jeans are covered in dirt. I run into his arms and bury myself in the smell of earth, marijuana and pungent sweat. I don’t want to cr because sometimes when I do he wrinkles his forehead like one of those silly looking dogs and says, “Stop making that horrible noise.” I hate to make my dad upset I hate to make him upset and he usually doesn’t get that horrible look unless I cry or tell him he’s doing something wrong and say how my mom would do it. Then he says “Yo mama wears army boots” and that makes me so mad even though I don’t know what he means.
      “I’m so so so so sorry, Darlin’” he’s says, holding me tight. “I went south to water my plants and by the time I knew it, the sun had already disappeared.”
      “I thought you weren’t coming,” I sniffle, wiping my snot and a few rogue tears with the sleeve of my sweater.
      “I’m so sorry. Are you cold?”
      I nod ‘yes’ and he rummages in the back of his truck, pulling out a dirty, faded pink towel covered in stains.
      He opens the passenger door and it creaks loudly. Then he lifts me up onto the seat and wraps the towel around my legs.
      “Better?” he asks.
      “Little bit.”
      “Well, I’ll make you a hot bath when we get back to the Land. I already gathered the wood.”
      By the time we get back to the Land, it’s dark but the stars are as bright as bare bulbs in the sky. With a dying flashlight, we make our way through the papaya and avocado trees, around the side of the house and into the outdoor kitchen my dad built. It’s a wall-less tin roofed area with a two-burner gas stove, a sink, and a cow dung floor. I think it’s kind of gross that we have to walk on cow poop but my dad says it’s just ground up grass and, in India, they use it to build their houses and everything.
      On a makeshift shelf and on the ground are dozens of re-used jars with crumbling, faded labels filled with oils and grains. There are woven coconut frond baskets stuffed with thrift store bought kitchen supplies, various cans of food, unwashed vegetables from the garden and plastic baggies full of spices.
      My dad lights a kerosene lamp and I sit down on a wooden bench behind an old card table he rescued from the dump. He bangs around the kitchen, curses and mumbles under his breath, his forehead wrinkling into a million creases when he realizes that the stove is out of fuel. This means no subjee. I’m relieved. I hate subjee but I don’t tell my dad that because I’m afraid to hurt his feeling because that’s pretty much all he ever cooks. It’s a mush of chard, kale, carrots, potatoes, zucchini, lima beans, chayote or whatever’s in season in his garden and maybe some lentils and mung beans or rice.
      He even packs subjee for my school lunch in big yogurt container and puts it in a crinkly paper bag with a whole papaya and carrots from the garden that still have their tops on and dirt in their crevices. It’s so embarrassing. Andrea Rasmussen, who is in my class and everyone thinks is so cool, has carrots that look smooth and clean like little baby tofu dogs. One day I said, “I like how you mom cuts your carrots,” and she laughed at me and said that’s how they come when you get them in a store. I wish my dad would give me things from the grocery store like my mom does and pack it in Tupperware. My mom takes the Tupperware from the lost and found at school, which is so embarrassing, but luckily no one knows. Except the one time she took a sweater and when I went to school wearing it, Kiana said, “Hey that’s mine!” and I had to take it off and give it back even though it was cold.

      I’m cold now and I just want to go to sleep but I know my dad is worried about me eating dinner so I pull a half an almond butter and jam sandwich out of my lunchbox.
      “Dad, I can just eat the rest of my lunch.”
      “Are you sure, Darlin? I’ve got some carrots or papayas if you want. Or some canned coconut milk.”
      “No, that’s okay.”
      “Okay, well why don’t you eat and I go make the bath.”
      He heads out into the garden, past the chico tree that he loves because he says that it’s Krishna’s favorite fruit and it tastes just like brown sugar. I can hear the rustle of dry grass and he makes his way through the cane grass field where he set up an old bathtub over a fire pit. I listen to him breaking sticks for kindling, dragging the hose through the yard and then the rush of water as he fills the tub. I start to nibble on my sandwich, listening to him chanting, “Hare Krishna, Hare Krishna, Krishna, Krishna Hare Hare,” but he’s quickly interrupted by a loud bang. He yells “God damn it!” and I can see the dark silhouette of his figure heading towards me.
      “What happened?”
      “Damn bathtub slid off the plank I had it propped up on,” he says as he enters the glowing aura of the lamp.
      “It’s alright dad. I don’t need a bath.”
      “Yeah you do,” he says pulling a twig out of my hair and then stoking his beard, removing a handful of bush debris. “We both do.”
      He rummages under the sink, pulls out some tools and then heads back out into the darkness, flashlight gripped between his crooked, coffee-stained teeth.
      An hour later, I’m half asleep, slumped against the table. I feel my dad’s rough hand on my shoulder lightly shaking me awake. I open my eyes and look up at him. He is bright red and clean and his hair and beard were wet.
      “The bath’s ready, Darlin. I took one first so it wouldn’t be too hot for you.”
      “I’m tired.”
      “I know. But just take a quick one. It’s nice and warm and the stars are beautiful.”
      “Carry me?”
      “Not sure if I can. You’re getting to be almost as big as me.”
      “Daaaad. I’m only six and three quarters.”
      “No way. I thought you were twelve at least.”
      “Come on dad.”
      “Ok, well, why don’t you climb on my back?”
      I stand on the bench and wrap my thin, freckled arms around his neck and my legs around his waist. I bounce along, eyes closed, breathing in the smell of castile soap. When I open my eyes and I can see steam rising and the glowing embers beneath the old, rusty, once white bathtub. My dad sets me down and I undress, draping my clothes on a guava bush nearby. I test the water and it feels perfect.
      “Ready?” my dad asks.
      “You know the drill,” he said “stay on the planks and don’t touch the sides or you’ll burn yourself.”
      “Yeah dad, I know.”
      “I know you know. You’re the smartest six year old on the planet.”
      He lifts me up and sets me in the middle of the tub. I can feel the rough wood under my feet and I slowly ease into the hot water. I sit in the middle, keeping far away from the sides and let the heat soak into my body. Dipping my head back into the water, I stare up at stars. There is complete silence and then a faint “hush hush” sound of the hose being dragged through dry grass. It sends a shiver though my body and I sit up and search for my dad amount the silhouettes of trees. “Dad, I’m done I yell out into the still night.” Silence and stillness. I feel panic rising inside me and I want to get out but I am trapped by a wall of scalding metal that surrounds me. “Dad!” I yell again. And then, I see dark figure heading towards me, wrapped in a cloak of moonlight and chanting softly, “Hare Krishna Hare Krishna Krishna Krishna Hare Hare.”

                                                                                                      * * *

      “Hare Krishna, Hare Krishna, Krishna, Krishna Hare Hare,” my father chants, crouched in the low branches in the jacaranda tree outside my window. His words mix with the countries and capitals of Africa I have spent all night memorizing for my AP History class tomorrow. Hare, no Harare Zimbabwe. Krishna, no Kigali, Rwanda.
      “Your dad is like having another kid. Every time he falls apart, I get stuck putting him back together,” my mom always says. Too many times. Too may times, I’ve heard her say, “Enough is enough.”
      But, when he got out of jail and showed up on the porch, bloated and pale from living on powdered eggs and fluorescent light, the manic high worn off or beat, or drugged out of him, he was slow and sluggish in his depression and too pathetic to turn away. So my mother pus on tea and sent him to take a bath. She yanked the stepladder out of the utility closet filled with gecko and cockroach shit, no matter how much she cleans it, and dragged the ladder across the burnt orange carpet. “We’ll have to rip this nasty carpet out,” she said when we went to look at the house.
      “It stinks like dirty dogs,” I’d complained.
      “As soon as I can save enough we’ll put down some of that nice faux wood,” she’s promised almost a year earlier. “An ugly carpet is a small price to pay to be walking distance to your high school.”
       She opened the stepladder in the small space between our concrete walled bedrooms and pounded its rusty hinges into a locked position with the heel of her hand. Then she climbed up the steps, until her right foot rested the small plastic shelf that meant to bear no more than the weight of a paint bucket. She reached onto her tiptoe with the other foot- stretching her body one inch beyond her five-foot frame.
      “I’m five one,” my mom always says, lengthening her spine and jutting her chin out, when people ask her height.
      “She’s five feet,” I say, just to taunt her.
      “Five one!” she counters, mock mad. “Why do you always have to try to take that inch away from me? Just cause you got an extra five from your dad you think you’re the cat’s meow,” she teases.
      “Fine, she’s five one,” I relent.
      “Five one and a half in the morning,” she says.
      “Whatever,” I laugh.

      Balancing on one toe, she hoisted herself into the dark, musty hole of the attic. All five one and a half of her disappeared into the ceiling, sending down a rain of white sheetrock. From the darkness, our spider webby camping equipment crashed down on the burnt orange carpet.

      My dad set up the tent in the back yard under the jacaranda tree and has been hibernating for months. He stays in his tent, sleeping mostly, except when my mom is at work. Then he comes into the house to cook pots of rice with beans and vegetables, to take a bath or watch a show on our TV that has only two static-snowy channels. When my dad and I are stuck in the same space, we don’t talk much and, when we do, it’s forced. When he asks about my day, I say, “Just a normal day at school” and then there’s nothing to asks him because I don’t want to see him wrinkle his forehead in anguish. So instead of talking, we fill the silence with Frasier or The Simpsons and sometimes chuckle along with the canned laughter. Before I go to bed and he heads out into the darkness with his flashlight, he hugs me, smothering me with his smell of sweat, coffee, pot, curry and sadness. “I love you so much, Tan,” he tells me. “I love you too dad,” I say because I know that’s what he wants to hear and what I want to feel. And I do love him, even when I don’t want to. Even when, just like my mom, I tell myself, “Enough is enough. I can’t love him and help him piece his life back together only to watch it come crashing down again.” So I pull back, letting the space rush in between us.
      “Night dad,” I say, retreating to my room.
      “Sweet dreams my darling daughter,” he says and heads out to his tent beneath the jacaranda tree.

      One day the landlady stops by to tell us that the roots of the jacaranda tree are tearing up the foundation of our house and she has to chop it down.
      “No! You can’t let her do this,” my dad tells my mother.
      “It’s her land. Her tree,” she says.
      He tries to bargain but there’s nothing to be done.
      The night before the “murder,” as he calls it, he climbs into the low branches of the tree with his japa prayer beads and I hear him chanting and gasping for breaths between quiet sobs. “Hare Krishna Hare Krishna Krishna Krishna Hare Hare.”
       When I wake up for the school the next morning, he is still be out there but when I come home, he’s asleep in his tent, moved to another area of the yard. The jacaranda tree is gone; only a stump. Piles of fluffy sawdust and crushed purple blossoms litter the grass.

Shay Belisle is originally from Maui, Hawaii, where she grew up eating mangoes and bathing in an outdoor tub in a ginger thicket. She currently lives in Berkeley, CA, where she works as a personal chef and is a degree candidate for her MFA in Creative Writing at Mills College. Shay is also the Creative Nonfiction Contributing Editor for the forthcoming issue 14 of 580 Split.

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