“My dad can kill bees with his bare hands!” I would proudly exclaim to the other kids in grade school, and any other willing listener. When a bee was spotted in the house, my dad would stand in a slight crouching position with his hands held out, ready to clap. Closer and closer he would creep until, CLAP, a laugh, and “gotcha, you bastard!” I felt the need to share this with people; most of them couldn’t have cared less. But they needed to know. They needed to know he was extraordinary.
“Your dad had a bad day today.” My mom told us as we heard the familiar sound of my his truck pull into the driveway. Led Zeppelin’s The Song Remains the Same was blasting on his radio. When his heavy, mud-encrusted boots thudded against the kitchen floor he did not greet us like usual or let Lucky, our dog, lick his face and smell the multitude of scents on his clothes.
My sister and I, home after a day of middle school, exchanged glances as we noticed our dad grabbing a Pepsi and heading straight to his recliner. He tried smiling at us. To others who didn’t know him, it would have been a smile, but we knew him, and it was far from a smile. The muscles in his face were too exhausted to hold the upward shape.
“Dad, what happened?” my sister asked, but we both looked at our mom because we weren’t sure if he wanted to talk.
With a deep sigh, my mom responded with, “It happened twice today. Twice in one day.” It took us a moment to catch on; I reacted first with anger, then with sadness as I glanced at my dad and saw how the air around him seemed to be weighing him down. He sat and moved his hand to reach for his drink as if thick mud were pressing down on him and all he wanted to do was stop and let it crush him so he could rest. “One with a gun and the other with a knife,” she added.
My dad had been held up at work. I tried to total the number of these incidents in my head, but after getting to five I didn’t want to keep counting. Working as a garbage man for businesses in the inner city, people wanted things from him, wanted things he didn’t have or couldn’t give: drugs, alcohol, more than the $4.25 he carried in his wallet that day. The baseball bat and can of pepper spray that he kept in the truck did not always keep these people at bay; sometimes he didn’t have the time to get to either one. Like the time he came home with a gash on his forehead that wouldn’t stop dripping red; a tree branch, he claimed—a drunken homeless man with a knife, we later learned.
I imagined my dad taking the last sip of coffee from his tall green Thermos, the opening creak of the metal door to the dark blue garbage truck, him lifting his tired legs to get to the next dumpster. A man with a knife walks up to him, demanding money. Pointing a knife at someone means their life isn’t worth enough. Was it the stained uniform? The defeat in my dad’s stance? The desperation of the person holding the knife? I couldn’t understand how someone could belittle him so blatantly, so cruelly.
I looked at my dad. The man who gets up at 2:30 am every workday, working 14+ hours a day. The man who is sitting in his chair trying to lose himself in the TV, although he always falls asleep before his favorite shows begin. The man whose shoulder bones are becoming more prominent as his job wears down his body. The man who can always make us smile, but we aren't smiling right now. He looks so different.
Hugging him, I realize there is one thing that always remains the same. His smell. Fourteen hours a day around garbage should make him smell bad, but he somehow doesn’t smell like trash, or soap, or laundry detergent, or whatever deodorant was on sale that my mom picked up for him. He just smells like him, an aroma defined as comfort, a smell that brings me a sense of relief.
As my head lands on his chest and I wrap my arms around his torso, I squeeze; I squeeze so he doesn’t think about knives or guns or threats and taunts. I squeeze to push away his exhaustion, his defeat, his pain. I squeeze to fill him with worth, to convince him of his worth, but my arms feel too small. They are too small. I need more arms, more arms to cover his entire body, leaving him wrapped in elbows. I can’t leave any room, no cracks, no holes.
Getting off the school bus one day in December I was surprised to see my dad’s truck in the driveway. It was one of the very rare days he made it home before I did. I stepped past a small puddle of dirty water in the kitchen from the snow melting off his boots; our kitchen floor was never clean. I sat down at the table as I saw him hunched over with superglue in his hand. This was a ritual for him every winter. The cold weather combined with his rough, dry hands resulted in razor-like cuts from his skin, cracking at the crevices. I watched as he added a small amount of glue onto the tip of his left thumb at the crack next to his fingernail, squeezing the cut together and waiting for it to dry.
We didn’t say much to each other, but there was always a quiet understanding in these moments. I liked these moments. Occasionally my dad would reveal some of his childhood, usually unpleasant, but it meant something when he shared it. Stories ranged from alcoholic parents who couldn’t afford to feed eleven children, to foster homes that had Christmas trees and presents and others that resulted in bruises, to dropping out of school in middle school and barely knowing how to read, to not being adopted when he wanted to, to his long hippie hair as a teenager, to the scar by his ribs on his right side from a knife fight. Somehow the stories always led to meeting my mom or having twin daughters, and then whatever sadness in his eyes disappeared. I craved seeing these moments.
When he reached this point, I just smiled and continued to watch him as he moved on to his next finger, trying to heal the cuts as he went.
My dad would often find things in dumpsters that were useful to us: discarded TVs, bikes, movies, end tables. One evening my dad brought home a pair of roller skates. Sitting on a chair in the kitchen with him kneeling on the floor, I placed my right foot on his leg as he slipped a skate on. They were just my size. White, with a few scuff marks, blue stripes down the sides with thick red wheels that felt so smooth gliding against the ground. That night I skated for hours before my mom called me inside as the street lamps lit. I was sweaty and ecstatic. The red wheels looked perfect against the dark pavement.
The next day at school I couldn’t resist my excitement and told the other kids at school about my new roller skates and how my dad had found them for me. Surely, they would be as happy as I was, but they kept repeating phrases like from a dumpster? aren't they dirty? gross, you use that stuff? It was all compounded by the fact that we lived in a trailer park. I thought about how stupid I was, that maybe I should have kept that all a secret, that I should be ashamed.
They started talking about my family living off dumpster scraps, followed by making fun of my dad. Not my dad really, but his job. The two were always connected and I couldn’t understand that. What the hell did their dads do that was so much better? Something twisted tighter and tighter in the center of my stomach every time someone made a cruel comment about him. It wasn’t right, and I could never find the right words to yell back: Why don't you get it?
Hold his hands, raise them to your nose and mouth and smell the smoke, smell the fuel, feel the broken skin against your lips, they bleed for you.
My mom apologized repeatedly while I was getting my ultrasound done. She had told me it wouldn’t hurt. As the ultrasound technician pressed harder against the lower right side of my stomach, I cried and flinched. The cold gel made me shiver. The doctor looked at the screen, then my stomach, the screen again, and then my mom. The sharp, needle-stabbing pain intensified as if it knew it was being identified. I overheard the doctor telling my mom my appendix needed taken out. My fifth-grade mind reeled. Someone was going to take something out of my body? I had never even broken a bone before. I had visions of flesh splitting open by knives and blood, lots of blood.
A nurse pushed my bed down three hallways. Was everyone staring? I felt like part of a white, sterile parade with a nurse, a doctor, and my parents trailing behind me. The only color came from my dad in his stained, bright orange work sweater that he always apologized about wearing out in public: sorry, I didn't have time to change; I stick out like a sore thumb. But I’ve always loved that sweater, the glaring brightness of the orange came with a sense of relief; I could always spot him in a crowd.
The harsh lights in the ceiling stung my tear-swollen eyes. We came to a stop before a set of doors; it felt too final for my liking. The anesthesiologist met us there; there were tiny alligators on the blue bandana covering his bald head. He threatened to sing a Backstreet Boys song to cheer me up. I think I was sobbing. I felt rough skin holding my right hand. My dad smiled at me with watery eyes and then looked at the surgeon.
“Any chance we can put it in a jar?”
The surgeon in pale blue looked at my dad as if he hadn’t heard what he said.
“The appendix, can you put it in a jar, you know, as a souvenir?”
The surgeon tilted his head slightly, “No, sorry we can’t do that,” he replied with a smile.
My dad shrugged and leaned closer to kiss my hand. “Doesn’t hurt to ask,” he added.
There are only a handful of times I’ve ever seen my dad cry. When my parents left my sister and I at our college dorm room, everyone had tears in their eyes. After hugging our dad goodbye, he looked at both of us and held up his hands, cupping them slightly.
“It was only yesterday that you two fit in the palms of my hands. These hands.” He said as he looked at us, and then his hands. His tears made his eyes a vibrant blue. I’d never seen him hold his hands so delicately before.
It was during winter break of my sophomore year at college when I woke up earlier than usual to my phone. Dad's truck caught on fire, the text message said. I called my mom; she didn’t have much information at the time, all she knew was that my dad’s work truck was completely destroyed and she had to go pick him up. He was okay.
When my dad got home, the smell of gasoline wafted off him and filled the house. His heavy duffle bag didn’t clunk on the chair as he set it down, and his keys didn’t clatter as they hit the table. He had nothing with him. It had all burned in the fire.
He sighed and said, “I was just driving down the road at four in the morning. All of a sudden, I smell gas, and flames burst out from under the dashboard. I had to pull the emergency brake and jump out of the truck as it was still moving.”
He went on to describe how he slid and landed in a snow bank. He watched briefly as he saw his truck slowly stop as flames mounted higher and higher. He raced from nearby house to nearby house, banging on doors, yelling for someone to call the fire department. People were hesitant to open the door for him. Eventually the fire trucks came, and my dad watched them put out the flames as he leaned against the railing on the side of the road. Part of me wondered if he enjoyed watching it burn up in flames, if he felt any kind of vindication, any kind of freedom in his identity as a garbage man burning so quickly, so easily.
His boss came to the scene not long after, watching with my dad. He then asked my dad if, given another truck, he could finish off his route for the day.
“What’d you say, Dad?” My sister asked.
“I said, ‘Fuck no, are you crazy!?’” It was amusing, at first.
But I knew that tomorrow, he would go in, get a different truck, and start all over. He would come home, exhausted, fall asleep before dinner, wake up for dinner and watch a show, and fall asleep again. It will still be a struggle every night for my mom to get my dad out of his recliner and into bed. “Babe! It’s time to go to bed!” My mom would yell louder with each attempt. He’d often fall asleep with an unlit cigarette hanging on his lips, too exhausted to light it. The thin white cylinder would lift up and down with his heavy breaths like a very slow baton conducting a drowsy, melancholy melody.
I wished we could afford for him to quit. I almost wished he didn’t care about his family so he would just leave his job. Leave us. Go do something he’s always wanted to do. I wondered if he had any dreams, aspirations; had he ever been allowed to have them? Did his unpleasant childhood take it from him, or was his job the culprit? I wished he wasn’t trapped. I wished I could do something. How long would he have to jump out of trucks for us?
“Geez, Dad, that’s like an action movie,” my sister said.
“Yea, something like that,” my dad sighed.
Going home for a weekend during college, my sister and I entered the house. Not long after we settled in, my mom nudged my dad with a beaming smile on her face, “Go on, tell them about your day.” My dad sat up in his chair and shrugged, but I could tell it was something that made him happy. He motioned to the refrigerator where there was a huge handmade card held up by cheesy magnets from Niagara Falls and Washington DC.
“One of my stops is a daycare, preschool place . . . ” he began. We had heard about this place a little before. The group of kids gather outside every Tuesday, knowing he will arrive in his truck. They cheer when he arrives, making a motion with their arms asking him to blow his truck horn, and then they scream, giggle, and cover their ears when he does. As he steps out of the truck the young children sing/yell in unison, “Garbage truck, garbage truck, garbage truck! Mr. Tim, Mr. Tim, Mr. Tim the Garbage Man!” And, knowing my dad, he probably waves to them and makes funny faces like he does in store lines or restaurants whenever a little kid is nearby.
They cheer and watch him do his job. Celebrate his work. That day, there was a bonus. Hand in hand, a teacher and a young girl walked up to him. The girl braced the huge card against her body as the wind tried to take it from her small hands. She handed it to my dad with a grin. On the front of the card is a crayon drawing of his blue work truck, with banana peels and cabbage heads flying out of the back. I can picture my dad smiling and opening the card. Inside are the names of every kid who cheers for him every Tuesday. There is a poem, a rhyming poem about how nice my dad is and how cool his truck is. His worn hands are juxtaposed against the innocent crayon message on the bottom of the card, thanking him for all his work and taking the time to stop and say "hi" every Tuesday, signed with a heart.
“Do you like it, Mr. Tim?” I imagine the little girl asking.
And I can tell by the look in his eyes that he does.
I’ve always had a fascination with comparing my hands with my dad’s, keeping track of where my fingertips reached when pressed against his palm. In middle school, the tips of my fingers reached the second joint in his fingers. My hands, small, soft, a pale white. His hands, darkened by rough skin, dirt permanently ingrained in the creases and under his nails, calluses making them thick and hard: bee-killing hands, taking-hot-plates-out-of-the-microwave-without-flinching hands, changing-the-tire-in-cold-weather-without-gloves hands, being-a-garbage-man-for-over-twenty-five-years hands.
“Dad, your hands are so rough,” I said as a young girl, touching the calluses under the joint between finger and palm.
“That’s from my work, honey. Your hands won’t look like this.”
“No, they won’t.”
Elaina DeBoard lives in Rochester, NY and is a graduate of the MA Publishing & Writing program at Emerson College (2013). Her work has appeared in McSweeney's Internet Tendency.