“It’s as though he’s trying to soften the blow now that it’s landed.”
"Does anybody have a maxi pad? Aunt Flo came to visit, like a thief in the night."
“What? Shh,” I say, alarmed. Thank goodness Dad isn't in the van with Denise Stitcher screeching about her period, as though this is something people talk about. Our family does not discuss bodily functions. Not peeing, pooping, farting, periods, or sex. Not us girls with Mom. Never.
Denise is laughing. "Get it? A thief in the night? Like the Lord and the Rapture?"
"Just hush. I'll get a pad." Rose hops out of the van. I watch as my sister passes Dad, who’s on his way out of the Basel School building. He’s going to drive us to the park for P.E.
"You guys are weird," Denise is saying as Dad gets into the driver’s seat.
He starts the engine. "Who's weird?"
I close my eyes, hoping that Denise will shut up. She and her sister Diane joined our home school when their parents moved to Washington State to start a church like ours. Dad considers Mr. Stitcher a little suspect, theologically; he lets his girls wear pants at home, and they have a TV. But they’re pretty solidly independent fundamental Baptist, so we can fellowship with them.
Denise says to Dad, “It’s no biggie, Pastor Welch."
I can’t bear to look up. Denise and Diane have an easy camaraderie with their dad, teasing him about his neckties, mocking how he says Warshington, and Mr. Stitcher just laughs. Dad wouldn’t. He likes to kid around as long as the joke’s not on him.
But Dad doesn’t say anything, he just guns the van engine as we wait for Rose. When she hops back in, he says, “About time, poky.”
She smiles apologetically, and palms a wrapped pad to Denise.
When we get to the park, Denise heads to the bathroom and the rest of us start a warm up drill. Dad stands at the top of the key, feeding us the ball and calling out critiques. I relax a little. It’s nice to be outside, breathing fresh air and hearing birds chirp.
"Catch the pass up higher," Dad says to Diane. She’s a stumpy, uncoordinated twelve-year old.
Denise rejoins us, tucking her t-shirt into her culottes. She gets in line behind me. "Psst. Cute guy alert.”
I follow her gaze. Two guys are strolling by the courts, smoking cigarettes. She and I share a robust interest in guys, but where my attraction is theoretical, all literary heroes and 1950’s movie stars, her head is on a permanent swivel. "Meh,” I say, trying to sound casual.
She giggles and the guys glance over at us. I feel a tingle of alarm. Would they actually come over here? And then what?
“Elise, come on, you’re up,” Dad calls.
I turn, catch the pass square in my center and dribble to the hoop. My layup is clean but it bounces off the rim. I hustle to retrieve the ball and hurl it back.
“Keep your eye on the ball,” Dad says. “Denise, you’re next. Get some pep in your step.”
I trot back to my place in line as Denise slouches forward. The ball bounces past her and thuds into the grass. "Oops!" she shrieks, standing with her hands on her hips, watching it roll away. The two guys are way past the courts now, near a stand of trees. Too far for flirting.
No one says anything and then Dad says, "Go on. Fetch it, you dog.”
"What?" Denise turns her head to look at him.
He stares back at her. "You heard me.”
We all stand there looking at Denise. Denise puts a hand over her eyes and squints. I feel like I can't catch my breath. Is Dad mad that she was flirting with the two guys? Denise trudges over to get the ball and Rose looks at me, as though asking me what to do, but we both just stand there, frozen. Now Denise is walking back, holding the ball well away from her body. Her face wears a crumpled expression. I feel sorry for her. She's silly and annoying, but for Dad to call her a dog? She doesn't deserve that.
She hands Dad the ball. “I don't feel well, Pastor Welch. I'm going to go sit down."
"All right.” He bounces the basketball, then fires it at Rose. “Okay girls, let's keep going."
We play for twenty more minutes, the three of us silent, hustling. Then Dad bricks a jump shot, then another one, and angrily hurls the basketball across the grass. I take off after it. He walks around in the parking lot, wiping his glasses with his handkerchief.
On the drive back to Basel School, Dad tells Denise to sit up front. “Should we take you home?” he adds. It’s as though he’s trying to soften the blow now that it’s landed. Like the way he’d put his arm around me after he beat me, telling me he loved me, that hitting me was for my own good.
"I'm fine." Denise sits with folded arms, staring stonily out the window. I wonder if she’ll tell her amiable father. I wonder if Mr. Stitcher finding out is what Dad now seems worried about.
A week later, Dad again drives us to the park for P.E. It's a drizzly day, so we're just going to do calisthenics. He parks the van, then half-turns in the driver’s seat. "Before we get out, I need to tell you girls something. I apologized to Denise for calling her a dog last week."
In the way back, where Rose and I are sitting, my sister grabs my hand with cold fingers.
He adds, "I apologized to the Lord, too. I guess my mouth outran my brain."
Denise says sternly, "It wasn't very nice, Pastor."
Dad's eyes darken and I hold back a groan. Why can’t she be quiet? She could just accept his apology and everything would be fine. "Ignoring my direction isn't nice, either," he says.
"True," she giggles, and I think you have to admire her courage, or idiocy.
“I asked the Lord to help restrain my tongue. I want you all to pray for me, too."
The van is quiet. Rose is nodding, so I nod, too.
Dad adds, "The forces of the Devil are strong. As your pastor and teacher, I can teach you girls what it looks like to need the Lord. This won't be the last mistake I make, or the last mercy I’ll need."
It feels like he’s preaching to us, as though we’re the ones who need to learn a lesson, even though he’s the one who called Denise a dog. I’m not foolish enough to say this, though. We pile out of the van, and Dad seems relieved, even joking around with Denise, who smirks as though she knows something now.
Everyone else decides to do calisthenics, so I head out alone on the misty park trails. I like running, smelling the dirt and the wet leaves, pushing myself to go faster and farther. When my legs ache and my lungs strain for oxygen, it leaves little room to feel anything else.
Elise Glassman lives and writes in Seattle. Her work has appeared in about a dozen literary journals including the Colorado Review, Spank the Carp, and Opossum. She blogs at busysmartypants.blogspot.com and is also an assistant fiction editor at Pithead Chapel.