by Maggie Herlocker
I stared at the wall behind his head, examining the yellowing spots on the once white wall with great intensity. I think I wanted to find shapes, images, anything to distract me from the conversation I knew was coming. I could hear the whir of the air conditioner, but it did nothing to temper the dry, triple digit July air. That whir was the only thing I could hear in the deafening silence.
My father leaned forward, his elbows on the table, his hands folded. I thought of how my mother always scolded me for having my elbows on the table.
“I’m so happy you came.”
I looked at his face, light from the window cutting his face into two. He looked tired, the lines in his face deep with age and weariness. I wondered if he hadn’t slept well, nervous for our meeting today. This was our fourth meeting in the last couple months. He had contacted me back in May. He was going to be doing some business in the Sacramento area and wondered if I wanted to meet up. We got coffee the first time, awkwardly recounted our lives over the past decade.
“I know that I wasn’t really there for you much growing up, and I want you to know how much I’ve regretted that.”
He fiddled with his straw wrapper, rolling it between his fingers. The sound of silence was all that was between us anymore. The screeching of a chair being scooted against the linoleum floor broke our silent battle.
He dropped the straw wrapper and folded his hands again. He sighed. Eyes cast down, he looked almost childlike, a child who knew they’ve done something wrong and are about to be reprimanded.
“I’m sorry,” he whispered.
“Come on Samantha, you can do it!”
I thought about this day often, the day at the pool. Pictures from that day show a three-year-old me standing on the edge of the pool, my inflated floaties around my small arms, my red, white, and blue striped bathing suit already giving me a wedgie. It was a hot August day in Roseville, and my mom and dad took me to the community pool to get out of the house and cool off. The pool was crowded. It appeared that many families had the same idea. Other children were splashing around in the pool, many mothers sitting around fanning themselves, tanning, gossiping with each other. My mother was among them, sipping a cold Coca-Cola she had gotten from the snack bar, like she did every time we went to the pool.
I had been to the pool before, but usually stayed in the kiddie pool. My dad had decided that this time I would go in the regular pool with him.
I was scared. That is one thing I distinctly remember.
The water looked so deep, my dad looked so far away. How could I, a very small child, jump far enough to be caught in his outstretched arms? I questioned the buoyancy of my floaties, could they actually save me from drowning?
“Samantha, don’t worry about it, I’m right here. I’m going to catch you, it’ll be okay!” my dad called over the yells of the children playing in the water. He always called me Samantha, never Sammie like my mom did, and definitely never Sam. He was grinning, his tanned arms stretched out to me, his curls of hair sparkling with water. Finally, the three-year-old me took a deep breath, closed my eyes, and jumped.
The water was cold and all around me, but only for a quick second. The floaties did their job and stopped me from going under, and my dad did his job and caught me. My hero.
“See, it’s just fine!” he laughed and I couldn’t’t help but squeal with delight and splash my arms in the water.
At that point, I didn’t know any better. I didn’t know that my father, the one who should have always be there to catch me, would disappoint me the most.
I didn’t know what to say. I knew my dad was sorry. I could tell he was genuinely upset with himself for all that he had missed in my life. Since the first time we met for coffee, I wondered if and when he might try and apologize. He’d been trying so hard, asking all the right questions about my schooling, if I had any boyfriends, what my plans after graduation were. But it’s not like one apology and lunch at a burger place was going to fix it.
I knew he had picked this place on purpose. It was our little secret spot. I’d only been here one other time since I was a kid.
It was right before I was leaving college, moving to southern California, going to UCLA on a full scholarship. My dad had sent me a card, congratulating me on graduation, the check inside showing just how much he cared. Part of me wanted to tear up the check and never deposit it. But I didn’t. Instead I deposited all five-hundred dollars into my special savings account that I couldn’t touch until after my college graduation.
I almost turned around that summer day and didn’t go in, but I was compelled to move forward, pushed by some force determined to dredge up old feelings. The food was exactly the same as I remembered it: good but not that special, kept in business because of people like me, desperate for feelings of nostalgia and the past.
Finally, I spoke. “Do you remember the carousel?”
The California State Fair. We went every year, driving from our home in Roseville to the fairground in Sacramento for the event. But this year was different, I was nine years old, and it would be a day I would remember clearer than any other. My mom stayed home with a headache, I later found was faked. It was just me and my dad and I was so excited. My dad had been away a lot lately, I was told on business, so I hadn’t spent as much time with him as I had become accustomed to.
I was too young at that point to see the subtle changes in the way my parents acted around each other. The walking on eggshells, the fighting coming from another room, the days my dad didn’t come home until much later than work would have kept him, if at all. He didn’t want to be at home. At that point in a child’s life, our parents are our whole world, our example of what a happy couple are, what we should aspire to become, to meet someone and fall in love just like your parents. But no one is perfect, especially not your parents.
On that day, at the fair, it had all seemed perfect. We headed out mid-day, blasting the AC in my dad’s car, the temperatures already in the 90s. We listened to a classic rock station on the radio, my dad beaming with pride as I belted out the lyrics with him.
When we got to the fair, it was obvious my dad was spoiling me, but I wasn’t about to complain. He bought me whatever fried foods I wanted, sharing in the plethora of goodies laid out in front of us that I would have never been able to eat on my own. Corn dogs, fried crispy and perfectly browned, funnel cakes covered in powdered sugar, my fingers sticky from the many times I licked them to relish every last bit of sweet. We shared a large lemonade, the freshly squeezed juice with just the perfect amount of sweet and tart, quenching our thirst.
It was getting late and the hot day turned into a warm evening. Summer in the San Joaquin Valley was always this way, hot and then warm, begging children to keep playing outside, past when the street lights had turned on. My dad and I were both sweating buckets but I wouldn’t have changed it for anything. The sun was setting, a beautiful orange sunset. There were a few clouds in the sky, turned pink, looking like the cotton candy I had consumed earlier in the day.
Stars began to pop up, demanding to be noticed through the electric lights of the fair. They provided a natural magic to the night.
“Alright Samantha,” my dad said, looking at me from across the picnic table, a smile crinkling the corners of his eyes. “We have time for one more ride. What’s it going to be?”
I sat there thinking long and hard. It’d be another whole year before I’d get to do this again, so I had to pick just the right ride.
“The carousel,” I decided finally.
He grinned. “Carousel it is then.”
We walked across the field, my sticky hand in his, to the carousel.
It wasn’t the nicest carousel in the world, the paint was chipped on most of the horses, the brass poles tarnished. But I thought it was beautiful. I’d always had a love for old, broken things.
We waited in line behind other fair goers, ages varying from newborn babies to grandparents. Everyone loves a good carousel ride, though no one can really express why. The feeling of being a child, just in the moment. When we finally got to the front of the line, I tried to pick out which horse I would choose to ride. There were many options, but the one that caught my eye the most was one of the more beat up horses. No one was riding it this go around.
The girl operating the ride asked my father how many would be riding and he replied that there were two of us. I was so excited. Something about riding this with just my dad made me feel giddy. Finally, the gate was opened.
I rushed in, making a beeline for my horse.
“Walk, Samantha,” I heard my dad call from behind me, a laugh in his voice.
I approached my horse and got up on the platform. She looked quite disheveled, the paint falling away to reveal the wood underneath. I felt bad for her, this inanimate horse, I’m sure she wasn’t chosen as much as the others. I was relatively tall for a nine-year-old, so I was able to climb up on the horse without assistance from my dad.
He had caught up to me and was getting on the horse next to mine.
“Guess you don’t need your old man’s help anymore.”
He was smiling, but I should have seen then, he was sad. But how could I have noticed in the magic of the fair?
Once everyone else had mounted their horses, the ride began with the classic ring of a bell. As the speed increased and the horses began to rise and fall, I was transfixed by the joy of this, the joy of pure childhood. I looked over at my dad, he was watching me, a smile across his face. I tipped my head back and laughed, the world turning upside down and sideways. I watched the world spin by, the lights of the fair smearing together. The song that was playing was the perfect mix of circus and delight, the old organ music ringing out of crackling speakers. Some of the bulb lights were out but it didn’t matter to me. I was so happy in that moment.
The horses began to slow to a trot and then stopped. My father dismounted first, then helped me down, even though I didn’t need the help. We walked towards the exit with the rest of the elation filled equestrians. Outside the gate, my father took me over to the side. I looked at his face in the light of the carousel. Something in the way his eyes looked at the ground told me something was wrong.
I looked my dad dead in the face, his eyes looking the same way they had the night of the fair. I knew he remembered it. “The carousel at the fair when I was nine,” I reminded him. “It was the last time I remember being happy with you.” I dropped my eyes then. It was too much to look into his deep brown eyes in that moment, they were so full of memory and regret.
He was quiet. I wanted so desperately to know what he was thinking, to know if he realized that I would never feel as joyous as I did that night on the carousel. I still wish I could have stayed on it forever, spinning through life, laughing at the world as it changed but I stayed the same, forever a child and her father.
Finally, he spoke. “I remember that so differently.”
I looked up, surprised. He was staring at me with his sad, brown eyes.
“That night, the carousel, you and I together, I remember that as one of the saddest nights of my life. I knew I was going to break your heart.”
“Samantha, I need to tell you something important.”
I looked up at him expectantly. He kneeled down in the grass to get on my level, to look me in the eyes. A random, cool breeze blew past me and made me shiver.
“Your mother and I, well, we’re not getting along anymore. She wants me to leave. She wants a divorce.”
I was quiet. What was I supposed to say?
“You understand this doesn’t change how much either of us care about you right?”
“Can I go with you?”
My dad looked surprised by my question, but then his eyes softened, his brows coming together, sad and concerned. “No, honey. You have to stay with your mom. I’m moving to Ohio, and I’m going to be on the road a lot for work. You have your school here.”
That’s when the tears came. My world was spinning, the carousel next to me becoming something else, showing my confusion and devastation as a swirl of light and sound, unable to focus and separate my thoughts. Of course. Of course, I wouldn’t be able to go with him. It made sense, but it didn’t make it easier.
“I’ll still be around as much as I possibly can!” Lies. “I’ll call and see you when I’m in town and I’ll take you to the fair next year if you want.” More lies.
I couldn’t stop crying. I remember not being able to breathe, my sobs racking my entire body. Eventually my dad picked me up, even though I was much too big to be carried, and he took me out to the parking lot, to his car, holding onto me tightly the whole time.
Nothing was the same after that. He was gone in the morning when I woke up, gone without a trace.
“Honey, you need to come out of your room, you can’t stay in there all summer.” My mother’s voice came in through my bedroom door. I didn’t want to talk, but I was glad she respected me enough not to come in. It had been a few years since my dad left. I was thirteen now, already an angsty teenager, a stereotypical child of divorce. Over the years, I’d retreated more and more into myself, barely even talking to my mother. School was the only thing that mattered to me. I knew the only way to get out of this place was college and I wanted a scholarship. I didn’t want to owe my parents anything.
“Sammie, please,” I heard a new pleading in her voice. “At least come with me to take the dog on a walk. We don’t have to talk if you don’t want to, but you need to come out of your room.”
I sighed, but lifted myself off of my bed. “Fine, I’ll come,” I called to my mom, still from inside my room.
“Okay!” I heard a new joy in my mom’s voice. “I’ll meet you downstairs in five!”
I lethargically put on my tennis shoes. I wanted to make my mom happy. Maybe she was still hurting too.
I met her downstairs, she already had our dog Timmy on his leash. She was dressed in her trendiest workout clothes, even though we wouldn’t really be exercising that hard.
“Ready to go?” she asked, smiling.
We headed out, going down our block to the park that Timmy loved. My mom handed me the leash.
“You’re really much better at walking him.” My mom had never been a huge Timmy fan, she hated how big he was, how much of a nuisance he was. When my dad had first brought him home from the pound she was horrified. Not only was she worried about his size, I was just starting to walk at the time, but of course his fur and drool got all over her pristine house. The real offense. But I loved him so she gave in and let him stay. I realized as I was walking him that my dad easily could’ve taken Timmy with him, but he must have left him behind for me.
“You okay, sweetie?” my mom asked, noticing that I was deep in thought. “Sorry, that was probably a dumb question.”
I didn’t really answer, just kept walking.
“I know things have been hard for you, things that you don’t quite understand. I know I’ve never really explained the divorce to you, but your father and I just could not be under the same roof anymore. And with his job, there’s no way you could’ve gone with him. Plus, I wanted you to stay, even though I know how close you two were.” She looked at me sideways, a small smile on her perfect pink lips. I tried smiling back, but I’m sure I failed.
My mom stopped in the middle of the sidewalk and turned to look at me. “Samantha, I need you to listen to me.”
I stopped, Timmy sniffed some of the bushes nearby as I turned to face my mom.
“I don’t want you to be mad at me or your dad, this isn’t something that either of us wanted. Besides honey, it’s been a few years now, I thought things would be better between you and I.”
I raised my eyebrows.
“Don’t you look at me like that. I know this has been especially hard for you, but I need you to stop being angry.” Like that was so easy to do. “It took a lot for me to ask him to leave, it was not an easy decision.”
“You asked him to leave?”
“Yes Samantha, I asked him. It was just not working, I needed him to go.”
“I still don’t understand, what wasn’t working?”
Now it was her turn to roll her eyes at me. “It’s hard to explain, you’re too young to understand.”
“Try me,” I said crossing my arms across my chest.
My mom let out a sound of frustration, but then took a breath with her eyes closed. “He just wasn’t around enough, with his job, his insane amount of travel was just never what I wanted. I wanted someone who would stay and be a part of the family. And I just couldn’t take it anymore and he wouldn’t budge. This was my only option.”
I listened to what she said, unsure if it really was her only option, and it didn’t stop me from being angry, at her and my dad. Neither of them seemed like they wanted to fight for each other, to fight for me.
When we got back to the house, the phone was ringing. It was my dad, but I didn’t want to talk to him. I was still devastated and now I was angry too. When I did talk to him, it was awkward and sad, neither of us knowing what to say to the other. He stopped calling as frequently after a while and I never called him on my own. All I wanted was to get back on the carousel. I wish I had never gotten off.
I didn’t break eye contact with him as I felt my own brown eyes, identical to his, fill with tears.
“I remember how much you cried, knowing that I was leaving your mother, leaving you. I knew you didn’t understand it, how could you? It must have seemed like it came out of nowhere.”
Now it was my turn to sit quietly.
“I already said I was sorry for not being in your life more. It wasn’t what I wanted.”
“Was it what she wanted?” I said, glowering, my pain turning to anger.
“Who? Your mom?”
“Nancy.” I spit out her name like venom.
My dad looked taken aback. “No, of course not,” he said quickly. “My job is why I moved to Loveland all those years ago. Nancy was just why I stayed.”
I looked at the wedding band on his finger. It was foreign, nicer than the one he had with my mom.
He met Nancy in Ohio and moved in with her only a few months later. I felt betrayed. But he sounded happier than I had heard in so long that I kept those feelings to myself. I was invited to the wedding, but I refused to go. Also, it was in Loveland in October, so I had school, but he didn’t seem to think about that. He seemed hurt that I couldn’t go but I didn’t care. It was my own little act of betrayal.
But that wasn’t even his biggest betrayal, not by a long shot. I could handle Nancy, I got over it, I even met her over Skype once, an awkward affair, all of us strangers. No, it wasn’t Nancy. It was Charlotte. The other daughter.
“Why did you miss my graduation?” I demanded, desperate to make him feel some of my hurt.
“Charlie was in the hospital with pneumonia that weekend, you know that. I couldn’t leave her or Nancy then, she was only five. I thought I had explained all that?”
Charlie. I almost laughed. Of course, she could have a boy nickname from my dad, but I could never be Sam. Over the years I tried the name out, seeing if it would catch on in high school or anything, but I never responded to it when people called out at me. Samantha was my name and there was nothing I could do about it.
I didn’t laugh at him, but I did allow myself to roll my eyes. “Of course,” I said dramatically, “the other daughter needed to be taken care of.”
“Come on Samantha, that’s not fair. You didn’t come to mine and Nancy’s wedding.”
“Yeah but I was twelve and in school. I couldn’t leave to go out of state during the school year, not when school was the only thing I really cared about.”
He was quiet then. “I know. It’s not fair for me to be hurt by that, not after all I’ve done.”
I didn’t answer, unsure what to say at that point.
“Look,” my dad began, “I can’t change what I did or didn’t do, but we can change how we move forward. I want to be back in your life, I’ve already missed so much. But you have to let me.”
I sat there wondering what it was that I wanted. Did I want him in my life? It had been kind of nice seeing him recently, even though we were both shy and closed off. I thought about what it might look like. He had covered me in so many silly little wounds that I often wondered if they may ever heal. Was he worth opening all of those up again?
“Yes, okay. I’ll give this a try. Just know some days will be easier than others.”
My dad grinned. “Of course! We can take all the time you need!”
I gave him a small smile back.
“Would you be interested in meeting Charlie?”
My smile wavered.
“I think you would get along really well, if you’d give it a chance.”
“I– I’m not sure I’m ready for that yet.”
My dad’s smile dropped. “I get it. No, that makes sense. I was getting too ahead of myself.”
“It’s okay,” I said quickly. “I just think we need to work on what’s going to happen between us first, before I can do that.”
My dad’s smile returned, smaller this time. “Of course, honey.”
“You should come visit me in San Francisco sometime, see my apartment.”
My dad grinned. “I’d love that. I always had a soft spot for that city.”
“Who doesn’t?” I said, grinning back at him. Something felt so right in that moment, us agreeing on something so easy.
A waitress came up to the table. “I’ve got two cheeseburgers, two chocolate chip shakes, and an order of onion rings?”
“That’s us,” my dad said, and she placed the tray on the table and walked away. My dad divided up the food and placed the onion rings in the middle. It was what we always got when we came here.
Watching him, tasting the food, being there, I couldn’t help but smile.
Maggie Herlocker is a first-year fiction writer at the University of New Orleans’ Creative Writing Workshop, on her way to a Master of Fine Arts. Maggie moved from her home state of California to New Orleans in the summer of 2017 and is still suffering from In-N-Out withdrawals. A young woman who never quite grew out of her goth phase, Maggie’s work tends to have a darker side, often disguised in humor. Her short story, The Carousel, won first place in Chico State’s yearly creative writing contest in 2016.