In Our Lovely Deseret
Edited by Robert Raleigh

My Father Waltzing Home
Jan Stucki

[p.85]In our house you could hear shoes on wood. Could hear the even thud of my father’s rubber heel, thudding toward the door, hear even the scrape of my mother’s leather slipper dragging pieces of sand into the kitchen.

I could hear it with my eyes closed in my upstairs attic room, the thud thud, the scrape, and then the shutting front door. The steps without a pause that meant that my father was going out without a proper goodbye kiss and that it was up to me to stand on the front step and wave. To hurry fast down the stairs and get there in time. And there I was again, in my blue anchor nightgown, gripping my toes cold around the brick of the step, and then running to the end of the driveway where he was looking backward at our street and not seeing me until I slapped at his window backing up.

“I’m losing another tooth,” I yelled into our car. And when my father stuck his face out to kiss me, he asked to take a look. I opened wide and said with my tongue touching the roof of my mouth, “Is this the last one?”

My father said the tooth I was losing was a primary upper molar. It was round and small and made a just-in-my-head sound against the tooth below it when I bit down. And when I bit down or when I twisted that tooth, I could at the same time roll my eyes into the back of my head where they could see the stars of hurt. I showed my father this, the white rounds of my eyes, and my father in our car said, “Little Orphan Annie. Look at that.”

I looked until my father rounded the bend in our road and I was standing on our street. And I looked at the fog breathing out of my round round mouth, then disappearing until I sucked it back into the cold spaces between my teeth and into the now pounding place where I was losing a tooth. I sucked it in straight-backed and taillike my father had said to stand when we were dancing.

Typing was the other sound you could hear from my attic room. Not really an attic, my room, but my sister—when it was her room—had made it small and dark, shut off the window and taken down the glass that covered the light bulb hanging down. She had carefully laid onto the wooden slats a rug that our mother called a throw, and put the mattress on the floor in the corner behind a dresser and a chest of drawers. It was a black-and-white TV kind of place where families hid out during wars.

And now that it was my room, that I had begged and begged until my sister had said all right already, I was making it into an even better attic place. A real Anne Frank hideout where hearing things outside was what there was to do. I draped a broken tent across the ceiling to make it into a low-hung slant; I carried in a table to put things on and to sit under. And now I was bringing attic things into my room: the wet-smelling suitcases, the gritty box full of wigs, the piles of couch cushions that my mother would not tolerate, that made us look tacky, stained from the drools and the boots of people napping.

I was bringing these things to the corners of my room, and I was shaking onto those smelly cushions some nice smelling powder when I could see right then that the powder was right. Made the pillows and the floor around them look dusty and old, like an attic where every box had its outline of dust marking its own place.

The thing my attic did not have, because it was the one thing my sister took with her when she moved out of my room, was the typewriter. And she would not let me touch it. She swore that if I got my greasy, dirty fingers on it, she would punch out all my permanent teeth, the incisors and the bi-cuspids, and whatever other parts she learned to name, bone by bone, for eighth-grade science. She sat in[p.87] her room type type typing, and in my attic I could hear not just the banging of letters against paper, but the clang of the bell when she threw back the carriage, and the yank of the paper that she was laying perfectly centered onto the stack of papers already typed.

Had my sister been typing something real, this might have been all right. This might have made Mom proud instead of wringing her hands and saying to my father, What is she trying to prove? Had anybody in the whole world been able to read one word of what she was typing—if she were typing letters to starving people, say, or the history of her life for her book of remembrance—we would have said she had the right to be typing so loud in my ear. But what she was typing nobody could read. She called it the perfect way to type, but I said it was the dumb way. And either way it meant this: that taped over each letter of our old typewriter was another letter. The true letter that she had read in Scientific American belonged to that finger. And if she typed that way, with the right finger on the right letter, she would be using each finger to the best of its ability and her hand would truly be doing a perfect work.

The typewriter really belonged in my attic room, where it had been to begin with, and I could not get it. I could just hear it and hear it and none of it counted. It was only the same sound again, and again the same sound.

The footsteps of my father varied in heaviness and my mother’s steps seemed not to know fast or slow or which to do. At night when my mother’s steps were fast and uneven—they would stop and go and then go faster—it meant that my mother was rearranging the furniture, and that her jaw was tight and not moving. It meant that maybe there would be loud whispering and yes the door would slam. But in the morning with my ear to the floor I could hear her again, all even paced and steady and when I went downstairs to show her my half-loosened tooth my mother said that she had found in the basement a record player for me, an old attic-looking one that used to be my father’s, and that I could keep it in my room and listen to it.

She said, “You can practice that waltz,” and she step turned in a circle toward my father who was already lifting on his back pack. “One-two-three one-two-three,” she said. “Maybe your father can finish teaching you to waltz when he comes home.” And when she[p.88] said it, she held out the record player to him. “You girls would like that, wouldn’t you, girls? Your father finishing what he started.”

My father had taught me this much about waltzing: that you hold the person in your arms, chin up and straight-backed, and you step heavy-light-light, heavy-light-light. He had pressed down on my shoulder to help me with the heavy.

I said to my mother, “Why don’t you teach us yourself if it’s so important?” My father smiled.

My father’s steps always gave away where it was he was going. In the early morning when he left, his step was weighed down with the weight of seventy pounds on his back. My father was practicing for a trek across the Gobi Desert and he had to be strong and prepared. He had to pack his big orange backpack around the lake every lunchtime and then climb up and down stairs after work. It took drive and devotion, he said, to cross a desert. So when the other kids’ fathers just built tree houses and went to church, I knew it was because they had no drive or devotion. And when Rita and Eileen and Shauna Schoen asked me at Primary why my father was always going around in deserts, I had to be careful to not make their fathers sound boring. I said to them, “My dad’s just really devoted.”

What I did that was devoted was to help him. Without being asked I ran around our house looking for heavy things, things that would make his backpack weigh seventy pounds, and I could get them without being told because I knew already what heavy things worked: two old sets of scriptures, three pairs of boots, a bag of screwdrivers. I already knew that he only carried his things and not my mother’s records or her art books. In the garage, in the closet, in the back-under-the-stairs storage rooms, I found the heaviest things we had and when my father got home and propped his empty backpack against the coffee table I knew how to put them in: the flat books against the back, the bag of screwdrivers low and to the outside. My father pretended not to be watching.

In the mornings my father walked out heavy-footed and loud, but when he came home with his pack all empty I could hear in the lighter sound of his office shoes that he had unloaded my heavy weight for the Gobi Desert and he was ready to go to sleep.

My sister did not help in this nightly packing because she had to[p.89] type. ”I’m practicing,” she said, ”I’m going to be perfect.” The way the world typed, she said, was a corruption, the keys all rearranged just to slow fingers down. Fingers not performing to the measure of their creation. She pushed her fingers into the taped-over keys that each printed a letter that was not what it said.

All she needed to be perfect, then, was a perfect typewriter. But true-finger typewriters had to be special ordered and waited for. And that’s what my sister was doing. She was waiting for her special-ordered typewriter, and while she was waiting she was practicing so that when it came she would be that much closer to perfect. She was not idling away her hours.

Which is what she said I was doing every time I went into her room to ask for the typewriter again. “The typewriter weighs fifteen pounds,” I said. “Maybe twenty.”

“So?”

“So Dad needs it for his backpack. He needs to hike it around the lake so give it here.”

My sister did not stop typing. She turned the page of the New Testament she was typing from and read it out loud as she typed, so I could hardly concentrate on my own yelling of “It does not belong to you,” which, as she kept not looking at me, became “I’m telling I’m telling I’m telling telling.”

When she got to the bottom of the page, she pulled it out of the typewriter and held it up to my face. “Tell then,” she said. “Tell Dad this.”

The first paragraph went, “Cb yd. x.icbbcbi ,ao yd. ,rpe abe yd. ,rpe ,ao ,cyd Ire abe yd. ,rpe ,ao Irev.”

“That doesn’t say anything,” I said. “You don’t even know what it says your unperfect self.”

But my sister looked at it and read, “In the beginning was the word.”

“It’s got more words than that,” I said.

“And the word was with God and the word was God.”

“Which word?” I said. “Which word was God?”

I had her on that one. She didn’t even try to say. She looked at me and then she turned around and centered that page perfectly face down on top of her stack of typed pages in their cardboard box. “No, take the whole box,” she said. “It weighs more. It weighs the weight of the world.”

[p.90]”Does not,” I said. “It’s paper.”

“It’s Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John,” she said.

And my sister stood up and held out the box for me to take. “Put this in that bottomless backpack,” she said. “I don’t need to see it again.”

And when I just stood there, when I said, “He’ll bring it back when he’s done,” she said, “Right,” and dropped the box of typed pages on my bare foot on the floor. Boom.

It hurt.

“Sorry,” she said, and sat down to scroll up another page.

I clenched my fists and I clenched my teeth but it wasn’t my foot that hurt first. It was the boom sound of the box on the wooden floor and my tooth in my mouth biting back into my gum that pushed me back. That sent me backing out of her room
with the speaking-in-tongues gospels all over the floor.

I did not make a sound. If I was going to be able to waltz all night or to cross a desert one day, to crawl for water and step on scorpions, I had to be brave under pain. I had to be driven enough to keep going when it hurt. This much I was big enough to understand.

I backed into the dark of my room, to the corner where I had stacked the stacks of spit-stained couch cushions, and I sat in the middle of them. I sat so they fell around me in my crouch on the floor and I held onto my toes, my fingers and toes hooked into each other so tight that I could not feel the throb in my toe or my tooth. I could not feel it until I opened my eyes and heard once again the typing. And my mother rushing. And I wasn’t going to let them do it. I could make a noise with my feet that I could hear louder than both of them. I threw the rug to the side and stomped heavy-light-light, heavy-heavy-light.

And I stomped and I turned and I listened to the sound of my tooth in my mouth going bite-twist-scrape. I could taste it too, the sweet and thick taste of blood creeping down around my primary upper molar, and then I could taste all of the teeth on the left side of my mouth. Until I saw that my hand was there in my mouth, twisting and pulling to the dizziness of my feet, a sure sign of the pain I could take.

And with my tooth dangling down, I reached over and pounded my fist against the wall between my sister’s room and mine, my hand going heavy-light-light, heavy-heavy-heavy. “He’ll bring it all back,” I yelled. “He’s bringing everything back.” And I pounded my fist again.

[p.91]The typing stopped. It stopped and I waited and for a moment there was no sound at all but for my mother’s steps. Until I heard the knob of my door turn and the door push open and my sister turned on the light. She stood and looked around for me among the suitcases and copies of National Geographic around my bed and when I could see she couldn’t see me, I moved my leg a little from under my cushions. But it wasn’t my leg that she said, “Oh God” about.

She said, “Oh God.”

There was blood on my wall in little round fist shapes, and when I pulled the cushions down from over my face, my sister said, “Oh God” again.

I opened to her my fist with the tiny red tooth in it. “Look,” I said. “It came out.”

She ran out without saying anything, and when she came back she had a wet wash rag in her hand and she wiped it hard against the wall. “Get it off,” she said. “mom’ll freak out again.” And when the blood was only a wet spot on the wall, my sister turned to me and wiped it off my chin too. She leaned against my cushions all out of breath and said, “I know everything sucks.”

I didn’t say anything. “Do you want to sleep with me tonight?”
she said. “In my room?”

“Why?” I said. “I only lost a tooth.”

I went to bed that night in my own bed, my tongue filling in the space where that tooth had been and where now there was blood and softness, and I pressed my tongue there hurting while I could not sleep.

And I heard that night another kind of footstep. Not a thud or a scrape but a slow and quiet step that I thought was not a step at all until I heard the front door shut and my father’s car start and drive away late at night. It was almost light already when I woke up to my father driving in again and those same quiet shoes moving into and around the kitchen. Early-corning-in steps that maybe I had been missing all along.

But when I went downstairs, it was not his driving in again that I asked about. It was the backpack that I had not finished filling. “Can’t you make her give it?” I said. “I can’t find any more heavy things.”

“Don’t worry about it,” my father said. “I took care of it.” And I could see from where I stood that the orange backpack was indeed full and ready to go by the door. I ran to see what was in it.

[p.92]”It’s just some things,” my father said, and he started to try to stop me but he stopped himself when I undid the strings and looked inside. What was in there was underpants. A whole stack of not-white underpants, and t-shirts, and socks down the side, the heaviest thing being his striped birthday toothbrush. “This is underpants,” I said. “Underpants aren’t heavy, Dad.”

My father was looking out the window at the foggy day. “I guess I’m not as good a packer as you,” he said. I said, “I guess not. Underpants are dumb.”

Now that my tooth was out and in my pocket, I had to find a place for it in my room. I thought that the powder, being so old looking and nice smelling would make it look like the rest of my room, like it was in a place where it belonged.

But in my parents’ bathroom the talcum powder was not there. All I could see were my mother’s things: the bottles of perfume, the silver headbands, the pots of creams crowded around the sink. To my mother in her white underwear in her closet, I said, “Where are Daddy’s bathroom things?”

She stopped her dressing and looked at me. “What do you need in there, sweetheart?” she said. She said it and she shut the bathroom door behind me. When I just said powder she said, “Here. Take this,” and handed me the round box of fancy perfumed powder that sat on her dresser. “This one smells nice.”

I took the powder and walked toward the door and then I turned back. “Why does Dad need so much stuff in the desert?” I said.

She was looking into the closet and stepping into her high heels, her skirt half pulled over her head when she finally turned to me. But when she opened her mouth no words came out. She shut it and opened it again and still no words came out and all I could hear was typing. Then my mother sat down.

In my sister’s doorway I said, “What do you do with all the heavy stuff when you get to the desert?”

“You don’t need heavy stuff in the desert,” she said. “You need light stuff. Stuff you can carry with you a long long time.”

“How long?” I said. She turned toward me.

“Why don’t you ask him,” she said. “Why doesn’t he tell you how long. Maybe for eternity.”

I looked down into the powder. “It’s because of last night, isn’t[p.93] it?” I said. “I tried to get something heavy, I did. But Miss Perfect won’t let me have the typewriter and it’s the only heavy thing left.”

I said, “Daddy has to get ready for the Gobi Desert so he doesn’t die. He has to practice, you know.”

I heard my mother walk in her fast walk to where she picked up the downstairs telephone.

My sister said, “It’s a stupid stupid desert. It’s the stupidest place there is. And this is my stupid place so you get out of it.”

I had a place too. My attic place. I jammed my tongue into the space where my primary upper molar used to be and I took the powder into my attic room where it was quiet and dark and the ceiling hung low around me. I dredged the fuzzy powder puff in its powder and clapped my hands against it as hard as I could and none of it made a sound. It only sent flying into the air a tiny fog of sweet smelling powder that moved to the movement of my breath and then settled so lightly on the things in my attic room: on my bed and my shoes, on the copies of National Geographic and the piles of typed paper, on my stacks of cushions and my rug that I had pushed aside for waltzing.

But with the powder falling on it and around it, I had to push that rug out flat where it went, so I slid it with my feet back into the middle of my floor. And I crouched myself in the middle of it and hit the powder puff—again and again and again until a thin skin of powder had fallen over me, too, and around me and onto my feet on the floor. And then I took my tiny tooth and put it back in my mouth and I bit down hard.

JAN STUCKI lives in Salt Lake City with her husband and two daughters. Her fiction has appeared in a variety of literary journals, and the story published here won the Sunstone Foundation’s 1996 Brookie and D. K. Brown Memorial Fiction Contest.