by Carolyn Pledge Amaral
My father is trying to order a helicopter. This isn’t his first attempt, but it’s the first time he has someone on the phone willing to listen.
Last week he tried to call Prime Minister Trudeau, but that didn’t get far. Not even his Cape Breton charm helped him there. My father’s other trick is to call the White House to talk to President Ford—my father thinks he knows a thing or two about American politics. He gets transferred from person to person until someone finally gets fed up and presses the button. If my father’s on a roll, he can talk a good talk, and his laugh is a whole other story. When Wile E. Coyote dreams up some cockamamie plan to finish off the Road Runner, my father laughs and laughs, and even though I feel sorry for the bird, I laugh too—hard, like I might pee my pants. That’s just the way it is with my father.
I imagine a helicopter landing in the backyard, with the moving spotlights you see on M.A.S.H. and the “whir, whir, whir” of those huge blades, like a souped-up version of the scary bits at the bottom of our blender. My father would have to be careful not to lop the tops off the maples or flatten the little pear tree Mom’s trying so hard to grow.
I’ve never been in a helicopter, but I bet my father would take me for rides and let me move the levers with his hand on top of mine. He does that when I’m with him in the backhoe. We’d be able to see the whole of Cape Breton Island, with its highlands and jagged coast, and roads that twist and turn like the board of a Snakes & Ladders game. We could watch for giant tails of humpback whales and fly all the way to the mainland of Nova Scotia to see the tide rush into the Bay of Fundy. Then we could swing down south to the White House and land on the roof. The President would notice him then—if no one shot us down first.
From the top of the stairs, I watch his reflection in the long skinny window by the front door. If I had one of those remote controls, I’d change the channel. It’s a movie I’ve seen before.
“Fredrick,” my father says, before he doles out the rest of his name. He crosses his legs tight as a Twizzler and takes a long drag off an Export “A.” In the morning, the plastic ashtray will be stocked full of butts, a cigarette graveyard my mother will dump into the mass grave of our garbage can.
Most people call my father Freddy, but it’s important to sound official when you’re calling helicopter companies all the way in California, so he goes with Frederick. He emphasizes the “ick” part of his name to make up for the thickness of his tongue. His tongue’s his tattle when he’s been drinking—the same with his boots on the kitchen floor. They sound different, a Bacardi kind of different, but you’d have to be me to understand. Or my sister, Brenda. She’d say the same thing if I asked her.
The telephone table where he sits is an appendage, an extension of his body, like the tail of a lobster. At Michele’s house, they’ve got one of those phones attached to the wall with an extra long cord. Michele can walk halfway around the house doing anything she wants while we talk, plus she can talk forever.
My father always says, “Don’t lean on the phone, girl. I’ve got a business to run.” So I tell Michele I can’t talk long, but she never believes me. Her father’s a plumber and has a business too, but my father wants to be a millionaire before he’s forty, and time is running out. He can’t miss a job because I’m yacking on the phone. Things are different at Michele’s house, and even though she’s my best friend, there’s lots of things I don’t tell her, but that’s not really the same as lying.
I’m pretty sure my father doesn’t have enough money to buy a helicopter. Besides, there must be laws about keeping one in the backyard. Michele thinks we’re rich, but if we were, my mother wouldn’t be working the back shift at the City Hospital. And if we were, I could buy that pair of bell bottoms from Crowells. Instead, I have to save up for everything.
I wish my mother were home, but they’d probably only get into a fight, and that would be something else to worry about. She’d try to stay out of his way, but if this helicopter thing turns sour, he’d go looking for her. With any luck, once he paces back and forth on the kitchen floor with those boots a million times, he’ll fall asleep on the couch watching The Ed Sullivan Show. If it were Saturday, he’d be happy with Hockey Night in Canada—unless the Montreal Canadiens were playing. He’s not a fan of the French. Tonight, he might take a go at a fight with Brenda, since she’s the oldest. But she’s locked away in her room with those huge headphones on, so he might let her be.
“What I want to do is talk to someone who can help me.” My father’s voice rises. The Twizzlers switch direction, and he pulls another cigarette out of the pocket on his green work shirt. “I want to talk to a Goddamned supervisor.”
My father’s words sound like the sharp notes my little sister plays on the piano. I squeeze my knees up close to my chest so there’s no chance he can see my toes dangling from the landing, and then I stand up to go check on Tish. She can sleep through anything, but who doesn’t when they’re three-years-old?
I press my nose up against the cold window in her room and look down on the giant snow mountains my father created with his backhoe. Tomorrow Brenda and I will tunnel through the bottom and make a fort—hollow it out a bit inside. Sometimes when I sit in those mountains listening to the silence and eating snow, I imagine what would happen if the whole thing collapsed on top of me. My father would dig through the snow with his backhoe until he found me in one of his giant scoops. I’d be kicking the air like a dying fly on a snow cone. It wouldn’t be such a good story if the claws of the backhoe chopped me in half, but that would never happen. Even when he’s had half a bottle of rum, no one can operate a machine like my father.
The bad movie’s still playing in the reflection at the bottom of the stairs. Now my father’s standing, detached from his telephone tail, his free arm punching through the air, while he gives the person on the other end the gears. He’s not big, but when he gets angry he’s like a giant—a red-haired giant—who’s not at all happy about losing his goose, or in this case, his helicopter.
I tiptoe to my room and close the door without making a sound, the way I’ve practiced. In bed, I pull the blankets tight around my neck. If my father stays in bed tomorrow, it’ll be a sign the bender’s coming to an end, but it’s only been a couple of weeks, so he’ll probably get up, throw up, pour himself a Bacardi and Tang and head off to work. He’s got a business to run. My mother will empty the ashtrays and make everything nice again, and I’ll dig myself deep into a winter fort. If Michele calls, I’ll go to her house, and we’ll take turns talking to boys on her phone.
Downstairs, my father’s voice crescendos, and I straighten my legs tight like two darts flying towards the red dot. The helicopter spins and crashes with the slam of the phone. Bullseye.
The full moon spotlights my Donny Osmond poster, and the channel changes. I’m in bell bottoms singing on stage as if I were Marie, the sound of my father’s boots keeping time to the beat of a distant band.
Carolyn Pledge Amaral was raised on Cape Breton Island, Nova Scotia, and now lives in Bermuda. She is a graduate of Acadia University, the University of Sunderland (UK), and is completing her MFA in creative writing at Florida International University in Miami. Her work has appeared on the Be a Better Writer website and The Royal Gazette in Bermuda. She is currently working on the completion of her first novel.