A 1977 divorce was trailblazing, and a custodial father was positively extraterrestrial. I was six.
A serpentine driveway tethered our farmhouse to the county road. It was the length of a football field, and under heavy snowfall became one with the surrounding pastureland, like white paper: no margins, no lines, no direction.
On a wintry post-divorce day, my father lost control of the car as he tried to maneuver it over the invisible driveway. He tried reversing, gunning, turning. He got out and pushed, but there was no one to take the wheel or give it some gas. The shrill sound of engine hardware pushed to breaking, my father’s outburst, and my little brother’s terrified scream made an unforgettable chord. Plumes of steam enveloped the Volkswagen Beetle in a personal storm.
My little brother was three. I hated his weakness, his threeness, the fact that he could not be trusted to use the toilet. I hated the hardship he was and how he didn’t even know it. These things I hated when I should have been hating other things, one thing in particular.
While my father fought the snow that moored us to a spot halfway between our farmhouse and the road, I had a terrible revelation. Like every morning my father carried us, half-asleep, to the car. After searching the footwell, I rolled down the window.
“I don’t have shoes.”
I remember his wordless response. It was the sound a man makes when you knife him in the gut. After rifling in the trunk, he tossed me a box. A stubborn tongue of wrapping paper still clung to it. Inside was a pair of women’s cowboy boots, twice my size. My father continued to dig, tossed snow over his shoulder and grunted with the effort.
Here’s how the world shatters: The old farmhouse was a fixer-upper. As an adult, I can now imagine how that would stress a marriage.
When the woman was packing, I placed my rocking chair in the truck, but the electrician said the rocking chair would stay and so would I. This he said gently. I have come to understand: mortal blows are delivered in soft, careful tones. They are enunciated.
“You’re going to stay here. Your mom will visit soon.”
“I want to see other people, too. Don’t think of it as a break up.”
“You have a brain tumor. I wouldn’t lose sleep over it.”
I now believe the woman had the electrician tell me because she couldn’t. It’s difficult to say goodbye, even to pets. But we do, when they pee on the floors or eat the plants, we do. I have to remind myself, sometimes we even get rid of perfectly good pets because our new address won’t allow them.
After the divorce, Dad sold the farm and we moved into a trailer. The word trailer trash wasn’t in my vocabulary the way water is not in the vocabulary of a fish. The first two girls I met tortured me in the way girls do.
“What are you doing?” I asked when they dropped to their haunches and swiped something off the side of the road. This they did until I was mad with curiosity. This was their idea of fun. I had just met them, and I’m sure my father was relieved I made such fast friends.
The girls, they’d cup their hands and pass the treasure to each other, sneer, then deposit their secret into a little plastic purse. I fluttered around their bowed forms trying to steal a look. One of them produced a lighter and with a flourish, flicked it in my face. I hitched back from the yellow flame.
“See, you’re afraid of a little fire. You’re too young for this.” Later, maybe months, I must have grown old enough for this: half-smoked cigarette butts, some with lipstick on them, some crushed into ovals. All had a puff or two left. And did I want to try it? I did.
I tried everything. The morning on the snow-cloaked driveway was the beginning of a crack. Like a bowl or a cup that still holds water, but you know when it breaks, it’s going to go along that particular fault line.
Pinned down by white tonnage that was entirely outside our control, my father had no choice but to retreat, to hole up in the for-sale farmhouse and wait for the storm to pass. Other storms came and went and every time it was a version of the driveway. Each time I hated the wrong things, the things I could see: the trailer, the mean girls, the snow, the brother, the boots.
© Kelly Griffiths
[This piece was selected by Sara Crowley. Read Kelly’s interview]