You know what it is, said his friend, with all the gravitas of an EMS worker at an accident scene: It’s because she has a father. She loves her father too much.
You’re serious, he said. You really think that’s why she doesn’t have a boyfriend. Because of her father.
Can you think of another explanation?
They were talking about his friend’s daughter. The older one, the one with the brains and the diploma and the bright future. The one who had everything going for her. Except, it turns out, a man in her life.
It would explain much, he said.
Of course it would, said his friend. Why do you think she comes home and is all I hate you I hate you, you ruined my life…and then the next minute she’s telling me I’m the best dad ever and could I look over her job applications just once more before she sends them off? There’s a reason she behaves like that.
And you think if she had a boyfriend she’d mellow out some?
Maybe. It couldn’t hurt.
So what’s the trouble? She’s a good-looking girl. She’s smart, sociable. Why are there no guys beating a path to her door?
I told you, said his friend. It’s because she has a father.
Because she has a father.
The other boys just can’t measure up.
They were both fathers of daughters, which allowed them to debate the issues with the conviction of expert authority. But something bothered the man about his friend’s argument. You don’t usually hear about girls being so crazy mad about their fathers that it impedes their romantic prospects. Perhaps a second opinion was necessary. He decided to go ask his wife.
What do you think? he asked her.
What do I think? she said.
Yes. What do you think?
I think he needs a new hypothesis.
She was the mother of a daughter, and so was no less an authority in this area. Nonetheless, he usually deferred to her point of view. Like when she insisted it was okay for a four year old to still be sleeping in her parents’ bedroom. His wife was the one with the pile of parenting books on her night table, so who was he to argue?
Speaking of daughters, she said, your own daughter is starting to read now.
She is? he said. Good for her.
It would be nice if her father helped out a bit, she continued. Maybe if you took over at bedtime. We have that collection of phonics books your sister gave us last year. She’s been reading to me one or two every night.
His face crumpled. You know how I feel about those books, he said. They’re so
tedious. All those monosyllabic words…
You think all books are tedious. Everything in script bores you. What happened to you? You used to have a passion for reading.
It’s true, he did. He majored in English in college, studied all the classics, and for a while, thought about becoming a novelist himself. Spent long hours working on a manuscript, threading together finely crafted sentences about pain and personal torment. If only he’d known something about these emotions. If only his powers of concentration persevered beyond page three. After about the thousandth false start, he fell out of love with words and stopped writing altogether. Avoided all forms of literature, even greeting cards. It was like dumping an old girlfriend. He took a desk job instead.
It’s time you assumed a more active role in your daughter’s development, his wife
said. It would be beneficial for both of you.
I can’t help it, he said, after a pause. She scares me.
That night, he climbed into the tiny bed and sidled up to his daughter. Several of his vertebrae clenched like fists. He’d never been on a more uncomfortable mattress.
Where’s mommy? asked the girl.
Mommy’s downstairs washing dishes, he replied. Daddy’s going to do stories tonight.
Mommy does stories, she said, folding her arms. Daddy can do dishes.
He grimaced. Why must everything be a struggle? Why can’t he say, just for once, We will do X, and X be done? Since when did parenting require a degree in international diplomacy?
No, he said, not tonight. Now where are those books mommy says you’ve been reading? Daddy would like to hear you read one. Can you read daddy one of your books?
The girl started pounding the sheets, which plumed around her wrists like mushroom clouds. No, she cried. Mommy does stories. Not daddy.
But daddy would like to hear you read, too, he pleaded. Can’t you read to daddy?
No, she shrieked. No, daddy, no! You’re a bad boy! And she leapt from the bed
and ran out the door.
Where are you going? he called after her, as if he didn’t know. Within seconds, she would be in the kitchen, clinging to her mother’s waist. It would take her mother ten minutes to console her, and another ten to coax her back upstairs. Perhaps by then the feeling would return to his spine.
The next day, his friend called him over. His face was gleaming and his cheeks flushed. It was the way he looked when he wanted to brag about something, like getting laid. His friend still bragged about getting laid. He forgot that once you’re married, getting laid wasn’t something you brag about anymore; it comes with the territory, like buying table napkins or cleaning the garage. Today, however, something altogether different was tickling the man’s cheekbones.
Great news, his friend said. She got the job!
Job, he said. What job?
You know, the one at our local library. I told you last week she was applying for it. She’s going to be an assistant librarian.
An assistant librarian. Is that all you can get with a degree nowadays?
It’s better than nothing, said his friend, a little crustily. Then he added: Of course, it’s just a start. She’s been talking about going back to school in a year or two to further her studies. In the meantime, she’ll have some pocket money.
Further her studies, he mumbled. What he didn’t say was, Isn’t it enough that after four years of college, all she could hope for was a job shelving pulp fiction?
That’s wonderful, he said. Maybe she’ll meet somebody. I’m sure lots of patrons will hit on her.
His friend shot him a look that announced he’d crossed a line. Fathers of daughters have a code, you see, and the provisions are especially stringent. It’s okay to talk about other women that way. It’s even okay to talk about your wives that way. But you never, ever talk about your daughters like that. They’re the sacred gardens in the
backyards of life.
Well, I’m happy for her, he tried to recover. You know, I’ve got an overdue book out just now. Maybe I’ll drop by her branch and ask her to take care of it for me.
He was lying, of course. He hadn’t checked out a book in ages. What’s more, her branch was clear across town. So you can imagine her surprise when he walked in. She was almost as shocked as he was.
Hey, what brings you here? she asked.
He didn’t know. He really didn’t know. He’d only been joshing his friend, but here he was, standing in the foyer of a building he’d never seen before–hell, he even had to look it up to find the place.
She was standing behind the front desk. Her smile big as a comet. He swallowed the knot in his throat, and approached.
I–I was just driving by, and I, I realized I’ve got this book at home that’s overdue. I thought I should renew it before the fine gets any bigger.
Well I can help you out. Can I see your card?
His card. Shit, please be here. Fumbling through his wallet–Visa, Mastercard, Sears, Blockbuster (Blockbuster! Seriously?)–he finally drew out an old, crinkled card, and handed it to her.
Nope, nothing overdue, she said, peering into the screen beside her. In fact, I don’t see anything out right now.
Nothing? Well, heh, maybe I remembered to return it after all–
But your membership is past its expiry date. Here, let me fix that for you.
She took his card to the little office behind the desk. Through the glass door, he watched her bow before another monitor, her long, sleek fingers brushing back a prodigal strand of auburn hair from her cheek. Her sleeve slipped past her wrist, revealing a faint archipelago of freckles.
It occurred to him she didn’t look anything at all like her father.
She returned with a brand new card in hand. Here you go, she said. I set it in this plastic pouch to protect it from bending. Anything else I can help you with today?
I, um–his eyes scanned for a life buoy, before settling on a copy of Hemingway’s collected short stories on a nearby cart. Here–handing her the book–this looks good. You know, a funny thing about Hemingway. Here was this adventurous guy who travelled all over the world, went to all kinds of exotic places––Africa, Cuba, Spain––and yet you know where he ended his life?
She shook her head.
Idaho! Can you imagine?
She shook her head again and giggled. He grinned. His chest felt bigger than a continent.
Did you read Hemingway in your classes?
Some, she said. He was a bit too macho for my tastes, though. I’m into more challenging authors. Woolf, Pynchon. Wallace. Have you read them?
Ha! have I–well, no, not yet.
It’s never too late to start.
Do you have any at this branch?
I can check.
He followed her into the stacks, her gait smooth as a summer stream, her hair swinging gently like the tail of a kite. She studied a shelf momentarily before pulling out a book that looked like a big blue brick.
I thought I noticed this here the other day, she said. It’s one of my favorites.
He looked at the title. Infinite Jest. Sounds like the name of a joke book. A thousand pages of jokes.
He thumbed through it casually. It’s rather slim, he blinked. Sure you don’t have anything meatier?
Ha! she laughed. I guess it can seem a bit daunting. Maybe you want to try one of his story collections first. We don’t have any copies here, but if you would like, I can place an order at one of the other branches.
That’s okay. I’ll take this one for starts. Oh, and the Hemingway, too.
Of course. An old classic, and a new one. A great combination!
He couldn’t have agreed with her more.
No, there was no good explanation why she didn’t have a boyfriend.
He came home to an apocalypse in progress. His daughter bawling her eyes out, his wife darting about, turning over pillows and seat cushions on all the furniture. An earthquake couldn’t have wreaked more damage to their living room.
What’s it this time? he shouted above the commotion. Jesus, I could hear her a block away.
That doll your mother gave her. The one that looks like a platypus rescued from a blender.
The one with the big eyes? I haven’t seen it in months.
Well, neither has she, but she just remembered it. We’ve been trying to find it for half an hour.
He joined the search briefly, stooping here, crawling there, before giving up. Leaving his daughter to her tantrum, and his wife to her enabling, he went down to the basement and shut the door.
Tripping past boxes of old baby clothes, he made his way to the back room they used to use as an office before their daughter was born. Swept aside a stack of ancient tax returns from the desktop. Opened his briefcase and pulled out a book written for grown-ups.
His eyes had just landed on the opening sentences of The Snows of Kilimanjaro, when he heard his wife shouting in the stairwell: FOUND IT!!!
So, said his friend.
So, I heard you paid our little branch a visit the other day.
His friend was grinning impishly. Of course he knew. Did he think she wasn’t going to tell him? She’s his daughter, after all.
I hear you have a thing for Hemingway, his friend went on. I didn’t realize you were such a man’s man.
Dear Lord: If you really were planning to come back and destroy the world, this would be a good time.
But miracles do happen, even to guys like him. His friend went on:
Still, it was great you could drop by and show her support like that. She really appreciated it.
Sure. And she looks fantastic, doesn’t she? You were probably right. I’ll bet she’s got lots of boys checking out books, wishing they could check her out.
Oh, I wouldn’t go–
Her mom was once a librarian, too, you know. Used to go to her with all kinds of questions I already knew the answers to–how does this card catalogue thing work, how do you do a subject search, anything to get her attention. Used to have a stack of books on my floor I never intended to read, but it didn’t matter, they got me what I wanted in the end.
The man felt his throat constricting. The impulse to loosen his tie, or to hang himself with it, was overwhelming–even though he wasn’t wearing one.
Now it’s some other fella’s turn, his friend continued. God, it’s gonna be tough when she starts dating….
Wow, you’re back! So, how is Jest?
No, silly, she smiled, the book you checked out. Are you enjoying it?
He scratched his head. It’s a bit difficult to get through, he muttered. His writing is a little–dense.
It’s not an easy read, I agree, but it’s a personal favourite of mine. I actually love his long, labyrinthine sentences, the way they reflect his characters’ obsessive thought impulses, as if they’re addicted to thinking as much as to drugs and to entertainment. The wedding of form and content is absolutely brilliant!
Labyrinthine. Obsessive thought impulses. Wedding of form and content. My god, who talks this way?
Did you study him in class?
Not this one. We read some of his shorter works, including his first novel. They’re all great, but Jest is my favorite.
Maybe I should wait for the movie version. I think I need visual aids. Blame it on all those picture books we’ve got back home.
She giggled. Was it the idea of illustrating a thousand-page novel with pictures? Or the idea of him reading to a kid young enough to be her own? Barely young enough.
I don’t know if there will be a movie anytime soon, she said, but if you want, I can find you a set of Cliff’s Notes–they might help.
Or is there an Idiot’s Guide for novels that weigh more than ten pounds? I’m good with Idiot’s Guides.
She giggled louder. His knees jellied.
I’m sure you are, she beamed.
His friend always boasted she was the smartest kid in her school. Got top marks by studying in her sleep. Set her geography textbook under her pillow and woke up the next day reciting the capitals of every country in Africa. His friend figured she inherited her brains from her mother. Her mother didn’t disagree.
It’s hard to believe someone like that was ever young, he told his friend. I bet she graduated from phonics pretty fast.
I doubt they even had those books back then, his friend replied. Say, how’s your little one doing, anyway? Still a holy terror?
You could say that. Well, don’t think I had it any easier. You know how they call the twos the Terrible Twos? I used to call your kid’s age the Fucking Fours. Too bad there wasn’t any real fucking going on.
His friend told him how his wife let the kids sleep in their bed until kindergarten, even though they had their own rooms.
I can imagine how that would dampen relations with your wife, he commiserated.
Yeah, but it comes back, his friend replied. Eventually, the kids move on to college and get jobs, so there’s more opportunity. What else are you gonna do with all that downtime?
He woke to a pair of wide eyes peering at him just above the horizon of his sheets. He feared a wild animal had broken in, a badger or a raccoon, until he heard the creature speak.
Don’t feel too good, it said.
His daughter clambered in between them, and his wife felt her forehead. She’s pretty hot, his wife said. Can you go get the Tempra?
He got up and traipsed into the bathroom. His forehead throbbed. How long had he been asleep? One hour? Two? You would think he would be used to the disruptions by now. His hand shook as it groped among the bottles in the medicine cabinet. Landed on the Tempra bottle just as his wife let out a gasp.
He came back to find his daughter’s stomach juices splattered against his pillow.
Mmm, he said. Breakfast in bed. What a lovely surprise.
He dropped the big blue brick on the Returns desk. Well, he said, I gave it a shot. You gotta give me credit for trying.
She looked a little disappointed, so he asked her if maybe there was a more accessible modern masterpiece she might recommend an old-school philomath like himself. He’d dug up the word philomath while browsing through one of his college textbooks, and now was waiting to see if it had left an impression, but she barely responded, saying only that she had a cartful of returns to shelve before her lunch break. So he offered to treat her to a bagel instead.
They found a table near the back of the café, near the pastry display. They talked about this and that, though it was mostly he who was doing the talking. Her eyes flitted distractedly among the various customers. In between a series of awkward caesuras, he tried to regale her with stories of working with her father. She smiled occasionally, but rarely met his gaze. So he asked her what other books she liked. She listed off a few authors whose names he didn’t recognize, and he asked her what she thought David Foster Wallace’s views were about phonics. She told him he couldn’t possibly have any such views, and when he asked her why that was, she said, Because he’s dead.
He killed himself a few years ago, she added in a somber voice.
No kidding, he said. What a coincidence. Just like Hemingway. Though Hemingway had a good reason for doing so, since he was stuck in Idaho at the time…
She didn’t get his joke, or if she did, she didn’t seem to find it funny. After another uncomfortable respite, punctuated by further glances at various corners of the floor, she raised her eyes and said: I don’t know if you realize this, but for the past twenty minutes your ankle has been rubbing against mine.
Silence. And then:
Oh. Damn. Sorry about that.
They didn’t speak much more after this. He paid for the bill, but she insisted on covering the tip. He walked her as far as the library entrance, but no farther. He watched reticently as she dashed through the security gates.
It was about a month later his friend announced that his daughter was seeing someone. Works for a bank, I think. Not the sort I would’ve expected her to bring home, but at least he has prospects.
He told his friend he was happy she had finally crossed that bridge. And that her father had, too.
That night, he didn’t go home right away. He spent some time wandering through other people’s neighborhoods, with their nondescript little boutiques, food markets and coffee houses, wearing the watchful and skeptical expression of a guest at a party he wasn’t invited to. As if to scold him for being here, the weather began to pick up. Brown leaves blew about like scraps of a torn-up letter tossed carelessly from the silvering sky. The air thickened and got colder, forcing him to thrust his ungloved hands deep into his coat pockets. It was irksome but also unremarkable how plain and indistinct everything in the city seemed, how one neighbourhood looked like so many others, how none of the people he encountered along the way bothered to return his gaze. Eventually, he passed a brick building with large, dark windows, and it took him some moments before he recognized that it was his local library branch.
It was dark when he reached his front door. Upstairs, his wife and daughter were curled up in their bed, dozing deeply. Their limbs were entwined like weeds in a derelict garden. He quietly closed the door and went down to the basement.
In a drawer in the desk of his old office, he found a folder that he hadn’t dared open in years. It contained the last draft of the untitled novel he had started but never managed to complete.
It was just a day like any other, but for some reason he had a strong feeling something unusual might happen. He had no idea if, by the end of the day, he would win the lottery or get laid or be offered a promotion or what, but he was quite certain that whatever happened, it would be extraordinary. Which was remarkable in itself, when you think about it. He was the most unremarkable of souls, someone for whom each day was invariably like the next, and so when you consider how nothing extraordinary ever happened to guys like him, it’s quite remarkable that he should think this way at all. In fact, perhaps the most remarkable achievement of this man’s life thus far was the fact that he should one day awaken to the expectation that something really quite extraordinary could happen to him. So, in a way, something extraordinary had happened that day. Still, it was not quite what he’d had in mind…
He muttered something like, Extraordinary indeed, and stopped. It was here, at this indeterminate intersection of anticipation and doubt, that the narrative always began to fizzle, whimpering like an idling engine, a lost child or a map-less driver immobilized by ambivalence. It was never clear what should happen next, whether this guy really was supposed to exceed the limits of his own redundant, overdetermined biography and achieve something extraordinary, or whether he, like the countless other incarnations before him, would end up staggering from half-truth to half-truth, an aimless nonsequitur languishing in the industrial parkland of some ineffably decontextualized universe. It was even hard to feel sorry for the guy, to tell you the truth; for what had he going for him besides this acute yet precarious reliance on the invariability of quotidian routine, and the safety and comfort afforded by a simple, mindless, repetitious existence? At worst, he might become a lodestone for the reader’s immitigable hatred; at best, its apathy. Either way, he would never achieve realization. Neither would the author. He would have a daughter before that could ever happen.
The sentences went on for several pages, but the man read no further. Instead, he pulled out his wife’s paper shredder, plugged its cord into a nearby outlet, and shoved the whole manuscript into the machine’s maw, right down to the staple. The teeth ground away ruthlessly, producing the most unearthly noise, but he wasn’t afraid of waking the girls, who were two stories above him, though really it was farther than that, much farther, they could have been as far away as Idaho at that moment.