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Nonfiction: My Father's Backpack


Navy blue and black Outdoor Products backpack

The sky was Dad's roof. He was homeless. I had often wondered where he'd go when it rained. What was it like outside the day he died? It might've been a cold and rainy day or a clear blue one. I can't be certain; it was five years ago and I was seventeen. I do know it was a Tuesday in January in Florida. The weather could've been anything, and because of this, I'm obsessed with wrestling the details. In my memory, the sky was clear, a low humidity mollifying the air. He made a stranger smile in the Publix parking lot. Or someone made him smile. Then his heart crippled his body, and he fell, his navy blue backpack crunched underneath him. Two days later, Aunt Jane stopped by my mom's house carrying Dad's backpack, but I didn't open it. I couldn't. My older sister, Katie, rifled through his backpack a few days later, but I left the house when she did. A few weeks pass before I open it, and, when I do, I make sure I'm alone. It's not long before I develop a habit, a routine. The neatly folded shirts that whisper a sigh of relief when I unfasten the zipper. The khaki shorts ruffled at the bottom. And in the smaller, front pockets: his razor, toothbrush, two tubes of toothpaste, small pair of metal scissors, black cell phone, and a yellowing lawyer business card. In this routine, I can feel him in the room with me, as though we're holding hands.

Black, plastic generic razor

Katie and I stand side by side in our matching Tweety Bird nightgowns, staring in the mirror and giggling at our fake beards, our cheeks and chins lathered with thick, white, Pacific Rush Barbasol shaving cream. We smell like an ocean breeze. Dad walks into the bathroom, the lower half of his face smothered in foam. He carries two silver spoons, holding one out for each of us. We take the spoons, look up at Dad, and wait for the next step. He grabs a cheap, green and black razor from his medicine cabinet. It connects with his flesh, sliding over his dark, coarse hair in swift strokes. "Like this," he mumbles through movements.

Katie scrapes the spoon's curved side along her cheek, scooping a heap of shaving cream. The side of her face looks like the road when a snow plow forces its way along the pavement, two drifts of snow piled to the side, one clear path down the center.

"What do I do with this stuff?" she says, pointing at the cream piled onto the spoon. "You rinse it," Dad says, shaking his razor free of its stubble and white foam concoction and running it under the sink water.

I slide the cold spoon across my cheek, hypnotized by the sleekness of the motion. The softness of my cheeks right after, though there is no hair to remove. I smell beach waves curling just under my nose with each stroke of the spoon. I scrape and scrape until all of the shaving cream is erased, look up at Dad, and cup my hands. He fills them for round two.

Small silver nail scissors

It's the middle of the day on a Saturday. My mom and step-dad are out running errands. They recently bought Katie and me each our own "Gooze." The latest '90s gimmick—a gooey, sticky substance that changes shape and form with every mold. You can throw it or stick it; like Play-Doh, it has little point.

Katie and I are at Dad's for the weekend, playing "sick" or "nurse," something that involves a fake cloth. The Gooze serves as a "cold rag" substitute. I lie flat on my back, morphing the cool gel into a rectangular shape, and spread it across my forehead. Within a few seconds, it seeps into my hair. I sprint to the bathroom mirror. I pull the slimy substance, roots tugging at my scalp, and hot tears spring in my eyes. It's hard to tell where the Gooze starts and the strands of my hair begin. They become one, the Gooze cemented in.

I walk out to the living room where Dad lays across his pull-out couch, shirtless, beer belly out, watching COPS. I stand there for a moment, trying to summon words, an excuse. Are there any right ones? I'm not sure which Dad I'll get this time. There's so many. He turns to me, spots the green Gooze immediately.

How the hell did you get this in there? Explosive Dad.

Why would you do that? Did you see her do it? Katie, wide-eyed, shakes her head no. Dad picks up his phone.

"I'm gonna cut your daughter's hair if you don't pick up the goddamn phone!" Your. He shouts above my head, leaving his voicemail, a tuft of my long, brown hair scrunched in his tight grip. The black-handled, metal scissors eye me on the counter, its blades threatening to slice through my thick layers

Dad sits me on the edge of the tub, mumbling expletives while he rips and clips and slashes at my hair, the slice of the scissors unbearably close to my ear. Impulsive Dad. He makes Katie leave the bathroom, and I wonder why he doesn't want her to see this. His frustration plus his natural sense of carelessness fuels a jagged and wild cut. My hair falls to the floor in choppy slime bits and I cry. Though I'm six, I know his sharp pulls and tugs will create a grizzly outcome. In old photographs shortly following the haircut incident, I'm smiling, though. Not a meek, closed-mouth smile, but a wide, toothy grin. In those photos, it's obvious my hair isn't the product of anything formed in a salon, a controlled hair cutting environment—my brown mop giving a whole new meaning to layers—but still, I look happy.

When Katie and I return to Mom's house after that weekend, I play back his voicemail. Destructive Dad, on repeat.

Two 0.9oz tubes of Arm and Hammer Advance White toothpaste, fresh mint flavor

Dad always stops at Jiffy Mart after picking Katie and me up for the weekend. He leaves us in the truck while he runs in. Each time we beg him to buy scratch off lottery tickets; sometimes he bites, most times he doesn't. At seven years old, I find this idea of chance thrilling. Two dollars here, 10 dollars there. A chance to go to the movies with Dad and Katie. A chance for the three of us to finally have ravioli or chicken nuggets and fries rather than Ramen noodles for dinner.

Usually he only buys spearmint SKOAL. He twists open the small, circular can, takes a chunk between his forefinger and thumb, and lays it in front of his bottom row of teeth, lip bulging. He buys it so often the inside of his truck adopts this minty scent. For a long time, whenever I smell spearmint or peppermint, I think of tobacco, and the rough, black leather seats of his green Nissan pickup.

"What's that?" I ask, the first time I see the SKOAL.

"Dip," he says.

"Can I eat some?"

"It's not for you, and you don't eat it."

I don't understand, but I want to. "Why can't I try some?"

"You're too little."

Whenever he stops at Jiffy Mart, sometimes two or three times in one weekend, we ask if we can go inside with him. He says no every time. I wonder if he's afraid of judgment from strangers. Of buying tobacco with his two little girls. Or is it the hassle of having to keep his eyes on us while he does? I never did see the inside of that convenience store, but I remember the details of its outside: the brown shingles lining the roof of the entire complex, the glass door decorated with cigarette ads; Bud Lite, Miller Lite, and Corona cardboard cutouts; and a blue, blinking neon sign that read OPEN. Jiffy Mart is just as connected to our weekends together as the Orchard Garden apartment complex where Dad lived, that I'm confident I could drive there without an address or GPS leading the way.

One day he comes out of Jiffy Mart and tosses two, circular cans at Katie and me. "I got you girls something." Excited I could finally copy Dad, I open the can, but notice its different packaging.

"What is it?" I ask. The label reads Jack Link's Jerky CHEW.

"Try it," he says, and because I trust my dad, I do. It becomes our favorite snack, the salty, beefy shreds tucked away in our bottom lips, bulbous like Dad's. We spend many afternoons riding in his truck, listening to classic rock on 95.7 The HOG with the windows rolled down. Dad sucking on his chew, Katie and I extracting the sweet, tangy, teriyaki of ours, and the wind whipping our hair in every direction.

Three button down plaid shirts that could be cardigans, a white and blue t-shirt with the logo "Friends of the Poor: Walk a Mile in my Shoes," one pair of khaki shorts, a yellow shirt with brown stains that reads "Proud American" printed with a bald eagle and two American flags, one pair of white mid-calf socks

He throws our clothes into the middle of the road. Pissed off at "the bitch." Mom is late for drop-off. We've just come from Dad's apartment. He has to wait thirty more minutes, idling in the truck with Katie and me, who he only sees twice a month. I don't understand his rush, why he's fixated on a quick switch every time. Though now, I sympathize. I get not wanting to look back. He hates reporting the weekend to my mom, their small talk at the end of the driveway, their old driveway.

How was your weekend? What did they eat? The brief conversation that ends in Dad flipping off Mom or calling her a pig because of her gradual weight gain, before skirting down the road. Looking at their old house, knowing he won't sit on the white, leather sofas, listen to the music spill from the dark oak Pioneer stereo speakers. These things hurt him.And where did their old bed go? Sold to a friend? Or rotting in a landfill where mice and other vermin skitter across its used surface? It's like a veil. I always know we're nearing Mom's house, the angrier and quieter he gets. The conversation more sparse, the rides sometimes ending in complete silence. He's typically moody at these bi-weekly exchanges, but that we were used to. That was normal. This time is different. After 30 minutes his impatience splits like roadways in an earthquake, anger scattering in all directions. He reaches behind his seat and snatches our backpacks, unzipping the pockets, and throwing clothes by the bunch into the middle of the street. Once empty, he tosses the backpacks and heads for the bed of his truck. Still seated, we cry out for him to stop. Dad won't look at us. He throws our Razor scooters onto the pavement.

"Get out."

We don't argue. He leaves us at the end of the driveway, speeding off without bothering to wait for our mom and step-dad to get home. Pants, underwear, shirts, nightgowns, socks, hair scrunchies, sandals, a Scooby Doo stuffed animal, assortment of Beanie Babies, Lisa Frank coloring books, two scooters, and board games litter the road. The Game of Life lay on the blacktop, game pieces—paper money, plastic people, plastic cars—scattered everywhere. Most settle in clusters, but at the far side of the road, a blue figurine—a man—lay all by itself.

Ventolin HFA inhaler with 125 puffs left

Rainbow Park is filled with jungle gyms, seesaws, monkey bars, slides, swings, and other playthings made for climbing. It's older, everything made of wood, the equivalent to a rickety, wooden roller coaster at a theme park. The entrance to the park features an archway painted as a rainbow. On one end of the rainbow lies a painted patch of grass springing with pink, yellow, and red flowers and white mushrooms, the other side, a pot of gold. Every other weekend Katie and I run under the rainbow's arc and disappear among the wood. Dad lets us play for hours. Sometimes he takes a crossword puzzle or a newspaper if he can afford it, but for the most part, he sits empty-handed. This is why his impatience elsewhere is hard to pinpoint. We skip meals lost in the playground, which means Dad does too.

Every so often I stop playing for a "breathing break." That's what I called it back then. When he sees me run over, he holds up my small, red, Albuterol inhaler already pulled out of his pocket. I puff once or twice and turn to leave. Most times he stops me.

"Take it easy. The park will still be there."

I look up at him with clasped hands and puppy dog eyes, begging to let me go back and play. His eyes search for company. He wants a buddy to sit and talk to, even for a minute. I think about how many minutes total that would give me with him if he were alive today. Probably hundreds.

It is at Rainbow Park where he first alludes to "going away." "I'm gonna go away, girls," Dad begins to say during our weekends. In the car, at his apartment watching a movie, under the pavilion at Rainbow Park. For months, every so often, "I'm going away." For every "going away" there is an extra "I love you, you know that?"

"Go away? Are we going with you?" He smiles, a sad smile that looks through and far beyond us, back to before we were born. That's how I I know this question doesn't have a simple answer. He never elaborates more than "going away," but he stops picking us up every other weekend when I'm nine, Katie, twelve, and we finally understand what he means. Mom drives us to his apartment and we peek through his windows. Empty. Completely wiped.

Eldredge & Davis P.A. lawyer contact card

We sit on the couch with Dad, our eyes glued to his TV, and wait for the COPS theme song to play. As soon as the inimitable guitar key fills the room, the three of us break out in song, chanting "Bad boys, bad boys, whatcha gonna do, whatcha gonna do when they come for you!" Katie and I continue to sing it throughout the week when we're back at Mom's house. Sometimes it results in her calling Dad, yelling at him for letting us watch trash TV. "What, they like it!" Dad defends himself.

"John, no they don't. They watch it because you watch it."

Growing up, Katie and I always had a distinct understanding of the parental "yes" and the parental "no" of the house.

Can I stay up late? Mom: No. Dad: Yes.

Can I watch Scream? Mom: Of course not! Dad: Sure, why not?

What's for dinner? Mom: Broccoli, chicken, and baked potatoes. Dad: Kool-Aid freeze pops.

Though Katie and I always have questions, COPS is our routine. Our normal.

"What happens when they catch the bad guy, Dad?"

"They go to…JAIL!" he says, the word jail spookily. He throws his hands up in the air, as if telling a ghost story, and we laugh.

"What happens in jail?" Katie and I reel in for the story.

"I can't tell you that."

"Why not?"

"Well, if I told you I'd have to kill you," he says. One of his favorite phrases he uses so often we know never to take it seriously.

Our eyes turn back to the TV, the flashing blue and red lights catching up to the car it pursues. A minute later Dad says, "Jail is where your Mom's trying to send me." He says it casually, like telling us to use the bathroom before a long road trip, or the way a person announces they're going to bed. Dad's silliness vanishes, and I know the rest of the day—maybe the weekend—will be like this, a sticky silence pouring through the room. Then Katie breaks it.

"No she's not! Why would Mom do that, Dad?"

He pauses for a long time.

"If I told you, I'd have to kill you."

Black, pay-as-you-go, Samsung cell phone

I sit on the floor of my olive-green room five years after Dad died. The wood floor is cold and smooth against my bare legs. The walls make me sad. When I originally picked the color, it reminded me of summer, of Spanish moss and lazy beach days. But now, in certain lights, it looks as though someone splattered the walls with smoothies made of bitter greens.

I pull Dad's navy blue backpack out from the bottom right corner of my closet. It hides under old board games and sleeping bags covered in dust. I unzip it, always looking even though I know what I'll find. I'm hung up on this idea of one backpack after fifty-eight years of life. He left behind so few possessions, almost nothing to hold or hang onto other than what's in my head. I pull everything out, folding the shirts, and placing the miscellaneous items next to me. I stare into his empty backpack and wonder if what's not in there might tell me something more about my dad that I don't know. Or something that might spark a forgotten, but warm memory. Something that might prove to me that he had been okay those last eight years, shuffling between homeless shelters and littered highway underpasses. Was he one of those people who slept in the little crook under the bridge—a cement cubby-hole for hiding—just big enough for a slender body? The person sometimes wrapped in a sheet or blanket, a grungy head of hair peeking out of the top? I don't know, and though I think about it often, I'm not sure I'd gain any satisfaction from the answer.

What is a backpack, really? A container of experiences and memories and love? Who or what is a person after they've passed? Does what they last owned tell us about the life they lived, or is it simply what they possessed in the end? The last thing I always look through is his prepaid, minute by minute cell phone. In it, a text message. December 25, 2011, twenty-three days before he died. It was sent to my sister.

Merry Christmas Katie and Miranda. Love you both –Dad.

It was the first time she and I had heard from him in years. I was too surprised and comforted by the message that I didn't consider how he got a hold of Katie's cell phone number until after he died. Was this message a promise of further communication? A white flag? Or simply to let us know he's still alive? The more I read it, the more I'm convinced of a surrender.

When I'm done, I fold his blanket, his plain t-shirts, the loose items, making sure to put everything back in its original place so that I can maintain some kind of order in my head. He's not really gone; he's just gone away, like he always told us he would. We're playing the most challenging game of hide and seek, and I'm losing.

Dad. A word I haven't said out loud or directly in address for so long that sometimes I can't remember using it. When it seems impossible that I ever said the word, I pull his backpack out of my closet, unzip it, and spill its contents to remind myself that I did.

Notes from the Author
Writing this piece helped me make sense of my father's death. I think we never fully heal from the grief that comes with losing a parent, but there are things we do, routines we have, and memories that allow us to keep moving forward. I find reconciliation in sorting through his backpack. For me, the real, authentic (and often difficult) part of writing is in the revising. I never know where a story is truly going until I've written, rewritten, and then rewritten again.