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Also by Ladette Randolph:
Our Infamous Failure | What She Knows

Our Infamous Failure

April. Though their house was dark that night, I could still see lining the sills of the large west-facing windows of my parents' living room, small rooting pots the size and consistency of paper egg cartons, filled with the starter plants my father planned to set out in his garden as soon as the temperatures were warmer: tomatoes, peppers, zucchini, pumpkin, squash, cucumber, melons. Always a large garden, there would still be plenty of room for all the early spring plants as well as tall sunflowers, mums, hollyhock, and castor bean scattered randomly, some might say eccentrically, throughout the rows. The early plants—spinach, peas, onion, lettuce, carrots, radish—were nowhere to be found. I looked for them in the kitchen and finally guessed that Dad had already taken them outside to be set out once the ground had been worked.

Through my childhood there were always gardens. In all of the houses that marked my father's restless changes, the garden remained a constant. My father had been taken into his mother's garden when he was an infant. As a toddler he must have followed her, digging between the rows, putting worms and clods into a galvanized bucket. He had learned the rhythms of planting and harvesting as organically as he had learned to walk. But he was an only child and managing a single child in the garden was different than managing four active children, all born one year apart. The garden was the only place my father could find quiet away from a noisy household. It was his sancto sanctorum, the sole place where no one was allowed to interrupt him. And so, the garden was taboo, something to be admired, the fruits of which were to be enjoyed, but the garden itself a temple and my father its only priest. Despite his skill as a gardener, I did not learn to garden from my father.

That night as I stood in their dark living room, I knew how my father would have looked earlier that April day with his hoe and rake, having already rototilled the large space behind their acreage, which overlooked a small valley. My father would have stopped now and then in his labors that afternoon, having already taken off his jacket, wearing now only his gray sweatshirt, the sleeves pushed back to the middle of his strong forearms, to survey the view, to breathe in the fresh musky smell of the newly turned earth. He would have squatted now and then to crumble the dark soil in his hands, testing by consistency to know whether to add peat moss or humus or more of the horse manure he had just hauled from a neighboring acreage. I think I know how he must have felt, too, as he stood up and glimpsed again the panorama of the Nebraska countryside in early spring. He must have felt a slight thrill of contentment. Just being alive was good.

I had moved out of my parents' roomy house in the fall. My three children and I had stayed with them for the first nine months after my divorce during a lengthy custody battle. During those months I woke before anyone else in the house. Outside, on those mornings there were no lights anywhere on the horizon. In the middle of the night I was often awakened by coyotes yipping and howling on the hills to the north, and once in the predawn, I woke to see out my bedroom window a sleek red fox running through the snow. Often during those months I had the sense of being on the farm where we had lived when I was a child.

Behind their house, my father had built pens and an aviary for the exotic birds he raised: Japanese pheasants, quail and chickens from all over the world, each one more bizarre than the next, all of them with a tendency to preen and carry on like pet poodles: combs, and cockles, and feathers like elaborate hairdos, or ruffles, or baubles of jewelry. My father's unlikely favorite was the wild turkey. I watched him as on a number of occasions he held and stroked the young tom, its long scaly neck reaching so he could nibble my father's ear, its sparse feathers barely covering the pink-gray flesh. My father cooed and clucked and the tom replied in kind. Once the tom had acquired its full growth, he seemed to fancy himself king of the backyard farm, a delusion furthered by my father's tendency to let him run free. When my mother complained that the turkey didn't like her, had actually started to attack her each morning when she left for work, my father was amused but didn't quite believe her. Until by chance one morning he caught sight of my mother leaving the house. She was carrying a large piece of cardboard as a sort of shield, slight protection it turned out against the bird's assault as it threw its entire weight against her, its wings battering the air. My father was shocked by what he saw and wondered later why Mom hadn't insisted he take care of the matter earlier. By the time my mother returned home from work that night he had killed the turkey.

Dad was just as impulsive when later that same autumn, after noticing how a wild male pheasant had been making regular visits to the captive females in the backyard, he left the pheasant cage open. Later, he watched from the house as the female pheasants solemnly followed the wild male out of the cage and into the fields. Dad told me they all walked single file over the hill across from the house.

Despite his affection for animals, my father retained the farmer's sensibility about them. If an animal in your keeping was sick or crazy, you killed it. If a strange animal wandered onto your property and you happened to feel it was a threat or a pest, you killed it. So while in the backyard he tenderly nurtured his delicate birds, he would, as he thought occasion demanded, step onto the balcony off the upstairs bedroom—where he kept a rifle—to shoot at a coyote or a rabbit or a stray dog. It was not uncommon to hear a rifle shot in the middle of an otherwise quiet afternoon.

My father had come full circle to this acreage from the farm where he grew up and worked with his father through my childhood, a farm he was determined to leave one way or another, even though he was an only child, and his father and mother depended on him to help with the cattle and crops. He had wanted away from farming but here he was, planting a garden each year big enough to be called a field and raising exotic birds that required every bit the attention and trouble of livestock. But he was happier, more satisfied than I had ever known him to be.

It had been a month since I'd last seen him. Only the week before I had called to tell him I wanted to come out again, that I had the money lowed him and Mom. They'd helped with attorney's fees early in the divorce procedure. He waved aside my repayment, "Don't worry about that right now. We don't expect it." "No," I had insisted. "I've been saving to pay you back. I appreciated your help when I needed it most." He seemed to understand then that this was about my establishing my independence, and it had been no mean trick to save that $1500 on my low-paying job. He acquiesced, seemed proud of me for having proven myself someone competent and responsible, something I'd suspected he had doubted before.

When I had come to see him the month before it was to watch him make bread. He was known for his breads, grinding the various grains himself, often concocting his own recipes, some better than others. Every time I saw him it seemed he had a fresh loaf of bread. He collected and improvised upon the recipes of traditional peasant breads from Europe: Swedish limpa bread was my favorite—dark rye with fennel seed, a little sweet. I had begun to feel that baking bread was a holy thing, and after passively watching him make bread for years had decided I wanted to take it one step further, to try it myself. So we had worked together that day in early March, he talking me through the steps. My bread was a failure. I realized before we had even baked it that day that baking bread was not about recipes, not really even about technique, but about something much older and more primitive. Baking bread was about listening and feeling deep inside, letting the yeast speak through the dough, the kneading bringing the dough to life. I recognized it would take years of working beside my father to become an expert bread maker, not just an afternoon of listening to his instructions.

I remember my father had seemed nervous the day I came to bake with him. I was uncomfortable too. We were a bit like strangers. Not friends, not entirely comfortable with one another. We had never been particularly close. The oldest, I had argued with him while I was growing up. Our arguments had started in the early seventies when I, an adolescent, was passionately caught up with the issues of the day. My father supported the war in Viet Nam, had succumbed to the rumor that Martin Luther King was a communist, and believed the Cold War was necessary to national defense. He was as adamant in his beliefs as I in mine, and each dinner time through those teenage years was a clash of two people entrenched in their own version of the truth. I now understand how miserable it must have been for my three younger siblings and for my mother, but at the time, I was only aware of how awful it was for me, for I either cried through entire meals or was banished to my room. It was understood that my father and I didn't know how to talk, we only knew how to argue. The only reason we didn't argue now was because we had both made an excruciating effort to stay away from incendiary topics.

In spite of our infamous failure to get along, my father had never let me down when I needed him most. He was always there, whether to take the sliver out of my thumb or to come late at night to pick me up after a ball game. Later, it would be my father I most wanted when there was any sort of real trouble. We couldn't talk—that went without saying—but I could depend on him no matter what.

When my marriage ended in divorce, however, I feared it would be the last straw for my deeply religious father. I feared his tolerance for me would at last be exhausted. But my father was there as he always had been, both he and my mother, doing what needed to be done, moving furniture, buying beds, making temporary room in their house for me and my children.

 

The night I saw the fledgling plants in the window of my parents' house, I felt like an intruder. I had come into the unlocked house without knocking and knew the instant I walked in there was no one inside. I swallowed hard as I shut the door with a soft click. I wandered in the house for a while before finding the tiny plants in the living room, balancing their overlarge sprouted leaves and flowers on spindly, white stems that looked subterranean rather than something meant to survive above ground. I ignored the eerie red lights of the various emergency units that flashed through the room. Though the windows were closed I heard men talking outside, the occasional burp of a police radio, vehicles coming and going. When I parked I had counted four police cars, an ambulance, two fire trucks, several vehicles with flashing lights temporarily attached to the hood driven by what must have been volunteer firemen, and another unmarked car I later learned belonged to the county coroner.

My mother told me she had arrived home earlier that evening to see smoke coming from the back yard, dad burning off the old garden, though even then she knew it was nothing quite as innocuous as that, for their new puppy was running distractedly in the yard when she pulled up. The front door was unlocked as she came into the same dark house where I stood now. She must have felt the same emptiness, the same palpable sense that no one was there. But to be sure she would have walked through every room, all of them orderly and silent. Strange how she hadn't turned on a single light in her search.

By the time she got to the back patio door, she knew. She knew. The fire meant to burn off the garden had burned down the hill behind the house, low-burning, but clearly out of control. Clouds of black smoke from the damp grass billowed into the blue-black sky. She felt her flesh goosepimple as she stepped out the door and pulled her jacket tighter, her high heels scritching on the concrete patio. She walked toward the dark garden. Beneath the acrid smell of smoke, and something else she couldn't quite identify, came the musky smell of damp newly turned earth. And then she saw him. He was lying on his back still holding the handle of his hoe, his glasses thrown back onto his forehead, clearly dead. Later, she told me that she had said out loud, "So, it's all over then? as though she expected him to answer.

My father adored my mother. It was clear to anyone who knew them that he was completely devoted to her. Despite his obvious adoration, he could not have been an easy man for her to live with. Prone to fits of rage, he often used her as a scapegoat for what was going wrong in a given situation. For the most part she took it—though never in a cowering sort of way—though now and then she made it clear he had gone too far. As my mother stood in the damp April dark, her thoughts must have been for herself, that she had no regrets about her past behavior, that she had loved him well.

The neighbors had already called the fire department about the fire they had seen burning all evening. At first, they hadn't worried, knowing that my father was doing his annual pre-planting burnoff. But by 9:00 p.m. the fire seemed to have burned out of control and they were getting nervous. Shortly after my mother found my father, the emergency vehicles were there. He had died, they later decided, of a massive heart attack around 4:00 p.m. But when I arrived, the cause of death was still to be determined. County officials had to decide yet if my mother had in fact killed him and tried to destroy the evidence of her crime. The coroner swept through the kitchen, lights suddenly flooding the house as he looked through the bottles of pills my father had been taking for several years to treat congestive heart failure, which at only fifty-seven had made him a very sick man. The coroner asked my mother questions about her whereabouts. "You were just getting home from work at 9:00? You work in retail? Can anyone verify your whereabouts?" Was there a strange moment of doubt in my mother's mind, a wild accumulation of thoughts? Did I murder my husband? Did I wish him dead? Did I cause all this ruckus and somehow not know it? And then just as quickly, the answers. "Yes, I was just coming home from work. My whereabouts can be accounted for." The fire had added a grotesque element to the night, and the macabre image of my father's burning body had seared its way into my mother's memory. Later she would complain that every time she closed her eyes she saw it.

 

Five weeks later, mid-May, unusually warm but slightly overcast. One of those bleak Nebraska days where the slate-colored sky seems oppressive, and the landscape, even in spring, ugly and flat. My three siblings and I had spent the day helping my mother sort through the years' long accumulation of a man who loved too many things. There was a garage and a large outbuilding full of things to be sorted and sold: guns, ammunition, fishing poles, tackle boxes, shell loading equipment, fish-lure kits, candle-making kits, a pasta maker, a food dehydrator, knitting needles and yarn, incubators for bird eggs, feeding trays, watering bottles, rototiller, table saw, router, drills, numerous tools for both carpentry and car repair, cut glass, antique dishes. The list was long. So much stuff. All of it a testament to my father's diverse and androgynous interests. For if he was a man's man—hunting, fishing, woodworking, and fixing vehicles—he was not at all a man's man: knitting, baking, writing poetry, preaching. Who was he? I sometimes ask myself. In one day, the effects of a life gathered into a triage: this to stay, this to sell, this to throw. By the end of it, we were all demoralized not by the work but by the way we had so summarily boxed away our father's life. Hardest for my brothers, I had noticed. Several times, they had stopped in the middle of a task to reminisce about a certain fishing pole, an outing, a "remember when dad . . . " My sister and I did not have such strong associations with specific objects as they did, and that afternoon more than once I saw one or the other of my brothers disappear, surely to cry in private.

 

My father was never happy with what he was doing. By the time I was seven we had left the farm, and my parents had bought a gas station in the small town of Litchfield, Nebraska, on Highway 2. When they bought the station, it was already in trouble. What my father had failed to take into account at the time of its purchase was the new interstate highway thirty miles south and the resulting loss of traffic from Highway 2. He had to supplement the gas station income with mechanic work and driving a school bus.

They would supplement their income further by eventually adding onto the gas station an ice cream drive-in and a restaurant my mother operated during the summers only. The drive-in was a big success. Mother sold hamburgers, and hotdogs, french fries, deep fried chicken and shrimp-in-a-basket, and ice cream: sundaes, cones, malts and a few strange lavish concoctions of her own: The Pig's Party and the Deluxe Sundae. In the small dining area, her friend, the local high school art teacher, painted a mural featuring an exotic seaside setting, pink flamingos in the foreground, in the background tropical looking greenery and a turquoise sea. I never liked that mural, though now I think of it as a treasured piece of my history. I think of the adults living in that small town as far from the tropics and the sea as they could be and how that mural seems to capture all of their longings. My mother's way with people and her efficiency in any endeavor made the restaurant a hit, but it didn't keep the filling station from losing money and by my fifth grade year, they had to sell.

I have clearer memories of my father during this time. We were more involved in his life as we came and went in the gas station: pulling bottles of chocolate or strawberry Nehi soda from the ice cold water of the old-fashioned pop dispenser, or eating Almond Joy or Bit 'O Honey or Snickers after school. I picture a winter afternoon, a slow day. Maybe they were all slow days. The concrete floor of the station is newly painted with slick gray porch paint. I am sitting beside the wood-burning stove my father installed to warm the uninsulated building. Outside the wind bangs the metal signs. My father is sitting in his heavy office chair, his feet up on the desk. We are watching Harry—the black rabbit that my father acquired as the gas station pet. Every morning my father cleans up the night's accumulation of rabbit droppings and checks the telephone cords. Harry has a propensity to chew through the wires. Outside against the cold, gray Nebraska sky I see the pink granite wishing well and bird bath some optimistic previous owner built to attract potential customers.

Looking back now I see that my father's conversion was perhaps not quite as coincidental as it seemed at the time. At that age, I wasn't thinking much about my parents' lives at all. We had always gone to church, my mother a believer for years. But the change in my father was noticeable. He had started attending church regularly once we moved into town, becoming first a deacon and then an elder in the church. When the minister left at about the time the gas station was failing, dad started preaching every other week as interim pastor.

My father was a shy man. He was by nature not a talker. The sheer effort required of him to preach every Sunday astounds me still. He was not a particularly literate man either, but he worked hard on those sermons, and began to build a small library of reference books and commentaries to supplement his knowledge of the Scripture. I remember him as an earnest minister, writing drafts of sermons and asking my mother to read them and edit for grammar and organization.

Hence began a series of moves, first to Bible college, and eventually to a full-time pastorate in a new congregation, and eventually the slow, painful disillusionment with the church that finally led my father to leave the ministry. By the time I left home he had begun to sell water softeners for a living, and I began to believe my father had experienced a disappointment in life so keen he could never fully recover. And though those in the medical profession would dispute it, I felt that he internalized his failed ministry in the form of the heart condition that would seventeen years later take his life, for not long after he left the ministry at age forty he had a quadruple bypass surgery. A man in good physical shape who neither smoked nor drank. The doctors were at a loss as to the cause.

 

My father was the only man I knew as a child who could cry in public. Mostly he cried when he was touched by something beautiful, and he wasn't afraid to speak of his feelings in a tear-choked voice. And it's that I remember best, how my father could come clean, how he could talk about what he really felt in an era when men were discouraged from such displays of emotion. I think now he valued honesty more than anything. My father was out of step, off center. It's what makes writing about him so difficult. He was a crazy man given to keeping rifles and shotguns and pistols stashed throughout the house. He was a man who loved the birds he raised so much that he sat up through the night watching incubating eggs and nursing sick chicks back to health. He was a sensitive, creative man. He was an ignorant backwoods farmer given to get-rich-quick schemes, to short cuts of all kinds, and he was a man of fervent spiritual faith. Was it these contradictions that had so enraged him? I've spent forty years trying to understand him and find myself at this juncture with nothing I can call understanding, only a kind of acceptance and peace about my conflicted feelings for him.

If I could ask my father one last thing, I'd ask him the names of trees, plants, the weeds along the ditches, flowers, the grains growing in the fields, insects, and birds, which he could identify by their calls. My father had looked closely at the world around him. He had been given the names of these things by his mother who had been given them by her father. I am tempted to construct a gender symmetry in the passing on of knowledge in my family tree, father to daughter, mother to son. My father broke the cycle with his children, for none of us knows how to name the natural world as effortlessly as he, and my children are now also ignorant in that most fundamental of ways. Because of this lack of definition I fear we do not observe as we should, and it feels like a terrible loss. When I see something I don't recognize and can't name, my first impulse is to call my father for the answer, in hopes that I will hear him say once more "brome grass, dock, meadowlark, diamond willow, cicada, milo, ragweed, tickweed, thrush, Russian olive, lamb's ear, goldenrod, red-tailed hawk, shrew, barn owl, wolf spider, mourning dove," that I will hear his voice once more telling me exactly what I'm seeing.

Printed in the Spring/Summer 2001 issue of CLR

Ladette Randolph

Ladette Randolph is humanities editor at the University of Nebraska Press. Her short stories have appeared in Prairie Schooner, Clackamas Literary Review, Passages North, and other literary journals. The essay "Our Infamous Failure" is part of a memoir-in-progress. Other essays from the memoir are forthcoming in Fourth Genre and Connecticut Review

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