Soft in the Middle

By 
Elizabeth Withey

“Let’s blow this joint!” Dad said, and stuck the key into the Oldsmobile’s ignition. Mom rode shotgun; my brothers and I had all crammed into the back. Popcorn, our shih tzu, panted nervously at my feet, his thin tongue dangling over his bottom teeth. A pair of yellow eyes—the headlights, shining on the inside wall of the garage—widened and blurred as Dad backed out of the garage. The Fergusons were going on a road trip.

My father never used the rear-view mirror. He’d twist his torso and clamp his right arm around the back of the passenger seat, craning his neck to see behind the car while manoeuvring the wheel with his other hand. I don’t know how he did that with a bad back, never mind sitting behind the wheel for ten hours each way between Nipawin, Saskatchewan, and Calgary, Alberta, to visit his side of the family. I guess it hurt Dad to sit anywhere, to be anywhere: on the road, in the tub, maybe even in the cockpit of his airplane dreams.

“You make a better door than a window,” he barked at me. I was sitting in the middle and my head was blocking his view. At ten, I was one of the tallest kids in my class. I crouched down, stuck my nose into my Cabbage Patch Kid’s flaxen braids, inhaling the scent of vanilla plastic. Usually Aaron sat on the hump—a box-shaped armrest that folded down out of the back seat—but he’d begged Mom to sit by the window this time and she’d consented.

“We’re going to have to get you drinking coffee to stunt your growth!” Mom teased. She turned and smiled, sizing me up.

“No way! Coffee’s gross,” I retorted. Mom and Dad drank it nonstop on the road. The smell of it made me puke. But car travel was all injustice, double standards. Like, why did we have to be buckled in before the car started moving when Dad didn’t? My father only wore his seatbelt sometimes. Often he’d just hang it over his shoulder to fool the cops into thinking he was strapped in. Saskatchewan was one of the first Canadian provinces to make seatbelts mandatory, in 1977, the year I was born, but Dad never cared about the rules. Underhanded, it seemed to me, a betrayal of sorts, as a former Mountie, as a father. We were counting on him to stay in one piece.

The car lighter popped and I flinched. It startled me every time. Dad braked for a moment, brought the orange coil to the tip of his smoke and took a couple of quick puffs. The tobacco crackled, caught fire. Dad lowered his window a crack as he hit the garage door button on the sun visor. Mom slipped on a pair of oversized sunglasses; I called them her Bug Eyes. Holding the cigarette between his teeth, my father spun the wheel back to neutral with the palm of his left hand and jerked the gear shifter along the steering wheel down into drive. He waited until the garage door was all the way down then drove out of the yard. I said a silent goodbye to my blue bicycle, parked near the old red tractor.

I can’t remember Dad ever not driving on a road trip. He wasn’t a big traveller, in the passport-and-postcard sense, but he loved transportation: semi-trucks, the tractor, our riding lawn mower that converted to a snow blower in winter. Planes, above all. Was it the gears and dials and components, that tactile, mechanical language he spoke so well?

Was it the smell of exhaust, the pressure of a pedal under the sole of his shoe? Did the purr of an engine soothe his spirit or, later, after he’d screwed up his back, numb the chronic pain? Did his body’s betrayal thicken his dreams into gravy, make him crave all the more a vehicle that, unlike his own spine, his own self, could move with grace and ease?

As a young Mountie, Dad had owned all manner of cool '60s convertibles and hardtops. Sexy tail fins, chrome that could blind you on a sunny day, eight-track stereo systems and roomy backseats for making out at drive-ins. He’d grown up, grown serious and thrifty. We’d bought the Oldsmobile off Pa, my maternal grandfather, whose luxury cars always smelled vaguely of Lifesavers and grapes, and came outfitted with a Kleenex box in the back window. The Olds had high-tech electric window buttons, burgundy upholstery that felt like velvet, and a silvery hood ornament that stuck straight up, slaying bugs as we made our way west across the Canadian Prairies. By the time we’d arrive at our destination, the front grate would stink of fried dragonflies and leaf-cutter bees.

Though Dad hated seatbelts, he didn’t take risks on the road. He never sped or got lost or sleepy. Mom navigated, the map on her lap dotted with coffee drips. They both used plastic thermal cups acquired free from gas stations, sipping slowly to make it last, prolonging the agony for me and my brothers. The coffee stench plus Dad’s cigarette smoke only amped up the likelihood that one of us kids would need an emergency pit stop to hurl in some ditch, yet Dad still felt entitled to bitch whenever someone started gagging. To lessen the risk of backseat vomiting, Mom drugged us with Gravol, even Popcorn, who had the weakest stomach of all. He’d cower in the porch among the shoes as soon as we started packing up the car, trembling like a child, hoping we’d forget him.

That summer morning in 1987, after I said farewell to my bike, we took the shortcut to the highway, avoiding town. At the end of Elm Avenue, we turned right at the golf course, heading north on a quiet dirt road lined with poplars. The school bus came this way. I peered through the defrost lines in the rear window on the way past Lisa Taylor’s house, watching the dust kick up behind us like Princess Diana’s wedding dress train. Lisa’s older sister Crystal was a bonafide ballet dancer in Toronto. Once, I got a chain-letter postcard from her with the CN Tower on the front. It made my entire year.

Behind Taylors’s place was a pond where teenagers liked to sink old junkers. They’d spray-paint them with stuff like GRAD ’85, then push them out onto the ice in early spring and wait for it to crack. No cars there today as Dad kept driving down to the sharp curve left past Salisburys’ gate. We cruised past the dirt track where stock cars raced on weekends, and down a dip to the highway by the bridge. Crossing over the North Saskatchewan away from town was almost as thrilling as Crystal’s postcard; it meant elsewhere, the unknown.

Once we were settled on the road, Dad hit cruise control and turned on the radio. The digits on the dashboard said five-four-oh: CBC AM. No music; just grownups talking, and Mom and Dad talking about the talking, all of it gut-stabbingly dull. Aaron was eating cwackers; he couldn’t say his Rs. I pulled out a Nancy Drew, knowing the Gravol would kick in soon and I’d doze off. Graham, my adopted younger brother, fiddled around with Optimus Prime, his favourite Transformer. For years I misunderstood the Transformers theme tune. Who is Morethan, I always wondered, and why is he meeting The Eye? I watched my brother’s hands, compared them to mine as he played with his toy. Graham’s fingers were brown and thin and got wider at the tips, like frog toes. Mine were pinkish and thick and double-jointed. You don’t have to look the same to be a family, Mom told us.

Peace in the car was ever fleeting. Once tedium kicked in, or after the Gravol wore off, the back seat would descend into a den of bickering and tattling, especially when one child violated another’s personal space.

“Move. OVER!”

“Make me, Fatso.”

“I’m rubber you’re glue, bounces off me and sticks to you!”

Thwack. “Ow! MUUUUM!”

Before long, small hands were drawing invisible borders between seats, defining boundaries, threatening trespassers with revenge, and someone had kicked the back of Dad’s seat, and he was giving us dirty looks in the rearview mirror, threatening to pull over and leave us on the side of the road.

Sometimes we got to listen to cassette tapes we’d borrowed from the Wapiti Regional Library. This helped abate the boredom, but also generated new inequities and grievances. Like, whose cassette would be played first? And how long? And how loud?

We listened to grown-up music, too. Mom’s collection of albums—Rita MacNeil, Evie and Ginette Rineau—spilled from the glove compartment whenever she went looking for a leftover wet wipe packet from Kentucky Fried Chicken. Dad only had one cassette: Paul Simon, Graceland. The songs about boys in bubbles and roly-poly bat-faced girls ducking down alleys spun my imagination in loops. I wondered how it would feel to walk with diamonds on the soles of my shoes. Wouldn’t it scratch up the floors? Simon’s tunes were weird and cool, and this gave me respect for my father, faith he was more than a smoking, limping, shouting grump. A dad who liked Paul Simon had to be a good guy, right?

Sometimes, Dad sang along with the one about Betty and Al, where Al says he’ll be Betty’s long-lost pal if she’ll be his bodyguard. It was kind of a strange arrangement, I thought, and why did Al have to tell Betty she could call him that? What was Al’s real name? Did Dad want to be someone else? Was that why he loved the song?

A man walks down the street, he says, why am I soft in the middle now? Why am I soft in the middle? The rest of my life is so hard. How could a man be soft in the middle? What did that even mean? Was Dad soft in the middle? He had a bit of a gut but Mom’s tummy was softer. Was the rest of Dad’s life “so hard?” Was he planning to sneak off with some roly-poly little bat-faced girl?

The questions helped me pass time in the car. I gazed out at the flax and canola fields, made my eyes go blurry. If Dad wanted to call me Betty, I’d be cool with it, I decided, especially if he’d be my long-lost pal.

 

Most of my father’s family lived in Calgary. Every year, we made the pilgrimage there to see his mother, Grandma Julie, his brothers and sisters, and my cousins. Dad’s dad had also been a Mountie, but he died before I born, and we never talked about him.

Alberta was like another country. Hoodoos, dinosaur bones, mountains, the wild rose emblem like a lipstick kiss on all the highway signs. Here, they even spoke a different language: hooded sweatshirt, instead of bunny hug; chocolate milk, instead of Vico. From the Olds, I’d watch the pumpjacks pull oil from the earth, their heads tipping down, up, down, up, like horses giving me silent permission to annoy my brothers. Can I jab this pencil crayon into Aaron’s thigh? Can I give Graham a Chinese haircut? Yes, they nodded, yes, yes.

Once, instead of Calgary, we went to see Dad’s little sister, Auntie Julie, in Edmonton. We snuck ourselves in between disasters, the year before the deadly tornado, the year after three people got killed on the Mindbender, the world’s largest indoor triple-loop roller coaster in the West Edmonton Mall. The ride was up and running again by the time we visited and, despite the accident, I was dying to ride it, mostly to brag to my friends. I wasn’t quite tall enough to ride solo, but Mom was scared of heights, so I assumed I was out of luck, and began to sulk. Then Dad started emptying his pockets. He handed Mom his loose change and keys so they wouldn’t fall out on the ride. Dad on a roller coaster? No. Way.

“Ya coming or what?” he said over his shoulder. “I haven’t got all day.”

Yes. Way.

The Mindbender was terrifying and brilliant: not just the roller coaster part, but the riding-it-with-Dad part. I pressed my lips together tight as we got into a carriage, stifling my joy. Be cool, Betty. Dad sat on the left, the driver’s side. He didn’t like to wear his seatbelt in the car, but he didn’t have a choice on the Mindbender.

Tick, tick, tick went the train on its track toward the mall roof, madly, achingly slow. I couldn’t wait to tell my best friend, Natasha, and everyone else in my class. Mom and the boys were specks below us now. I turned to Dad. He wore his Joker grin, his top lip thin, his teeth glistening a little. We didn’t hold hands but I nuzzled close, hummed the Graceland music. I can call you Betty, and Betty, when you call me, you can call me Al.

A cruel pause at the top and then we were hurtling toward earth, flying straight down and everything was a blur and I had to pee so bad and I squeezed my eyes shut and we careened up and down and up again, and my guts pressed against my tonsils and my hair flew around and caught in my mouth as I screamed and screamed. My body jostled against my father’s. We loop-dee-looped like one of those airshow planes and I could hear Dad laughing and I felt so alive, so afraid and so free, and I gripped the bar even tighter and we were upside-down and right-side-up and around and around and around. I wanted it to be over, to never be over. End, don’t end. Dad didn’t close his eyes, he told me after. He saw everything.

Years later, after the plane crash, after my father was dead, I’d wonder if he’d closed his eyes, or if he’d seen everything then, too.

 

My father was a Mindbender, a roller coaster who went up and down, looped-dee-looped, drew out my screams, made my guts drop.
“Bugger off, Dipshit!” he’d shout with a withering stare if one of us kids got on his nerves. He sipped, he slurred, he stumbled and spat. Mr. Beerbelly, Beerbelly, Simon sang, get these mutts away from me. You know I don't find this stuff amusing anymore.

When we complained about leftovers or boredom or rain, he’d pull out one of his favourite lines. “You don’t know how lucky you are!" Or: “Too bad, so sad, my dad.” And I could tell from his tone that he wasn’t sad, not one bit. The booze made his face even redder when he insulted, hit. Peckerface. Jerk. Shithead. Good-For-Nothing. A catalogue of mean. And he's good with his hands, had the whole world in them, like that church song we’d sing in Sunday school.

But my memories are lopsided, contradictory, soft and wrinkly like Macintosh apples that have sat in the fruit bowl too long. Like a ride, the past twists around and around, plummets down, then lifts up toward something happy, tick, tick, tick, something that warms me when I’m feeling alone and shortchanged.

“You going to the movies?” Dad asked me once.

“No,” I replied.

“Then why ya picking your seat?” He smirked and I rolled my eyes. Dad was a jokester, a rogue. At supper, he’d say Mercy buckets instead of Merci beaucoup, just to annoy us. We didn’t correct him, even though we were all in French Immersion; we didn’t want to give him the satisfaction. Dad liked to cause trouble, poke fun, set us up for a fall. Sometimes, despite ourselves, we’d giggle at his antics. He could shine, when he wanted to win us over. I want a shot at redemption, Paul Simon sang. Don't want to end up a cartoon, in a cartoon graveyard.

Sometimes, when I’d kiss Dad goodnight on the lips, he’d slip his tongue in my mouth, a deliberate attempt to disgust me. “DAAA-AAD!” I hated it, loved it, hated it, loved it.

When he was in high spirits, he’d whistle, or sing. My favourite was Inky Dinky Parlez Vous, a twist on Mademoiselle from Armentieres with sex and swears. If the boys or I had sung it, Mom would have washed our mouths out with Irish Spring. She told me it was Hinky, with an H, but I always said Inky, like ink. On good days we’d request it, and he’d break into song, loud and dramatic and wild-eyed.

The engineer was shovelling coal, parlez vous!
The engineer was shovelling coal, parlez vous!
The engineer was shovelling coal, he shoved a bunch right up his hole!

INKY DINKY PARLEZ VOUS!

“PEEE-ter!” Mom would squeal, and the love beamed from her eyes like the Oldsmobile’s headlights. Dad would wiggle his cigar eyebrows up and down, grin mischievously before belting out another verse.

Those funny moments, I have them etched on an old-fashioned record inside me. It’s a short record and I keep it safe, in its jacket, out of reach. Now and then I take it out and play it, then play it again, as if the music on this record might help smooth the other ones, the scratched-up records that skip and crackle, or the broken ones that don’t play at all, that I don’t want to listen to anyway. I give the warm fuzzies space to dance and sing beneath my muscles and skin, hoping they will scare off the bullshit and the secrets, the stuff that hardens my heart into concrete.

“Hey Liz, could ya do me a flavour?” Dad asked me one Sunday afternoon. He always said flavour, instead of favour, as if to soften the blow of the request. “Could you give your dad a back rub?”

I didn’t want to rub my father’s back. I was fifteen, selfish, and surly, and it made me uncomfortable touching his bare skin, especially the scars just above his butt crack. What if someone saw and thought it was weird? But Dad was always in pain. It made him grumpy and sad. Was he depressed? He took lots of pills. His doctor called him Demerol Man.

“OK,” I agreed without much enthusiasm, and Dad rose from the La-Z-Boy in the living room, took off his shirt and bent down stiffly on one shin. This leaning tower of man, volatile, testy, mindbending, now kneeling before me, a begging broken bird. I wanted to hug him. I wanted to kick him.

Dad lay facedown on the carpet. I knelt down and pressed my right hand into his back, then my left, rubbing up and down along his vertebrae, skin against skin. The scars on his lower back were the length of cigarettes, with tiny lines across them, as though someone had been counting the years, the hours. Did a broken back make a man spineless?

“That’s it. There,” he said. My fingers had found an angry spot under one the scars. “Harder.” I dug deeper. Dad moaned his approval, like Popcorn did when we scratched his belly, and this buoyed me. I was doing my best, helping. I wanted to draw out Dad’s happiness, coax out the father he ought to have been, the one buried under all that pain.

Yet kneeling there over him, strange thoughts ran through my head. Dark thoughts. About how much he trusted me right now, about having him at the mercy of my fingertips. About how, in a moment, I could make him sorry, get him back. For the boys, for Mom, for all of us. Kick. Hug. Kick.

I steered my eyes away from his body out the picture windows. The spindly pines in our yard swayed, exposed black spines. I could smell grapefruit, vinegar: Dad’s sweat, my own. My gaze returned to his back and I imagined how he’d look without his muscles and skin. How could I have known they’d collect those same bones, charred, a year later from the wreckage, from the Piper my father had longed to own his whole life?

And woe, my nights are so long. Paul Simon again. Where's my wife and family? What if I die here?

I moved my hands to Dad’s upper back, kneaded circles into his shoulder blades, then returned to the lower back, that sweet, ugly spot, rubbing up and down the train tracks. It seemed I could never press hard enough. A tight exhalation rose from the rug.

My fingers began to cramp. I wound down, lightly scratching all over with my nails then finishing with a series of karate chops, like they did on TV. That made Dad laugh, softening the blow of the back rub’s conclusion. He wanted it never to end, but we both knew it had to.

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