The taming of the worrywart

St. Petersburg Times
Special to the Times

My friend Marjorie got a call from her father. He wanted to come for a visit. On the phone, his voice cracked. He didn't trust long distance and talked  too loud.

    Visit? When she'd moved across three states to get away from him? She pictured him in the house on Grand  Isle, crouched over the black dial telephone, sitting on the edge of the

lumpy couch he'd covered with her mother's yellow chenille bedspread. Two years ago when she'd gone to see him, she couldn't stop sneezing from the mildew.

    "Monday," he said, meaning that's when he'd arrive.

    "What time? Which airline?"

    "You don't sound glad. Maybe I ought to buy a plane and surprise you."

    He'd owned a plane when she was a child and the memory of it made her armpits prickle. She'd never once felt safe with him. She noticed she was wringing her hands. This was the man who'd turned her into a hand-wringer.

    She looked out the window, past the palms, to the water. Here in her kitchen, inside her own house, she finally felt safe. She'd worked hard to achieve that. A white orchid bloomed in the window over the sink. Polished copper pots lined one wall. The week's laundry dried on the back deck. She didn't like using the dryer when she had good sun. All that turning wore out the clothes. Being his daughter had made her a worrier, chewing over the trivia that gave shape to her life.

    When she told her husband about the visit, he said not to fret, everything would be fine.

    "Easy for you to say; he's not your father. You didn't have to watch while he wasted his trust and turned everybody in the family into Mormons, including the maid."

    On the drive from the airport, her father read to her from pamphlets he pulled from a scuffed alligator doctor's bag, his only luggage. He leaned closer, wearing the same gray sweat suit she'd seen him in two years before. A smell like machine oil and sweat filled the car. She turned up the fan on the air conditioning.

    "The West will break loose first," he said, "that's how the country will come apart. You'll wish then you'd taken my advice and put in a year's supply of food. There's groups ready to act when the time comes. I'm talking Trilateral Commission here. I'm talking black helicopters and a global army fixing to take over this country and crush our freedoms, including" - his voice rose - "our constitutionally guaranteed right to bear arms." He highlighted his pronouncements with slaps to one bony thigh.

    "Is this the United Nations we're talking about?" Marjorie said.

    "Make all the fun you want. Won't make a dime's worth of difference when the time comes."

    He was thinner than last time she saw him. His chest had sunk and his color was bad. Her younger brother said he hadn't been eating right since his third wife went off to live in a trailer park in Arizona. When Marjorie visited, her father was living on green algae, harvested from a special lake in Minnesota. The algae was the sole product of a Mormon-owned company he'd bought what he called "a piece of."

    "Algae's got everything the human body requires," he told Marjorie. He varied this diet will half-gallon containers of Breyer's Coffee Ice Cream.

    "I thought Mormons didn't drink coffee."

    "This isn't coffee, darlin'. It's flavoring."

    When they got to the house, he refused to sleep in the downstairs guest room, where she'd made up the bed and laid out a new blue sweat suit.

"Too fancy, darlin'. Don't want to be in the way." He settled on a small, dark storeroom in back of the garage. "This is the ticket."

    "I'll make up the camp bed for you, Daddy, but it's January. It'll get cold out here at night."

    "I'll be fine and dandy."

    "How long can you stay?"

    "Trying to get rid of me already?"

    She felt the blood climb to her face, shame at the truth of it, and anger. "Why don't you have a hot bath and try on the clothes I bought you?" A bath might help with the smell.

    He came out steamy, his thin strands of black hair combed back, wearing the same gray sweat suit. The sleeves and pants were too short; she could see his skinny white shanks.

    "Daddy, put on your new clothes."

    He shook his head. "An Italian opera singer once told me never to let fresh air next to my skin. Weakens the lungs. Singers have to watch that. And then there's the healthful bacteria. Bathing destroys it, but my old clothes are full of the little buggers."

    Marjorie had heard about the opera singer; it was his excuse to stay dirty. She'd have to steal his clothes and burn them if she got him in the tub again. "What are those bruises on your legs?"

    "They're not bruises. I fell on the pier last week and banged myself up. This is the cure."

    She looked closer. "What is that?"

    "Tar. My new discovery. Coal oil and tar will heal a wound faster than iodine or antibiotics. Patent pending."

    He came out of the spare bathroom the next morning carrying the trash can. "I haven't told you my new idea."

    "Where are you going with that?" Marjorie said.

    He held the trash can against his chest. "It's a new kind of welding rig. Runs on air.     Going to revolutionize the industry. Mormon fellow I know has the patent. I lent him my truck so he could demonstrate it."

    "You gave a man your new truck?"

    "Lent it. How're we going to sell a machine if we can't show it?" He saw her look. "I bought a little stock. Got it in exchange for my credit card so the fellow could make his expenses."

    "You gave him your credit card?"

    "We have an agreement."

    "What's the limit on the card?"

    "Twenty-five thousand."

    "Lord, Daddy."

    "I'll thank you not to blaspheme."

    Marjorie took a deep breath. She would not lose her temper. "What's in the trash can?"

    "Urine. My urine."

    "What exactly are you planning to do with it?"

    "Drink it, of course. It's a proven fact that a man's urine is not only sterile, it purifies the system. Gandhi drank his."

    She didn't know whether to laugh or cry. "But you've got it in a trash can."

    "I rinsed it out."

    That night, when the lights were out, Marjorie whispered in her husband's ear. "He's got to go. I'll lie and say I'm sick."

    "Why are we whispering?"

    "He's drinking his own pee." They laughed so hard that Marjorie had to get up to keep from wetting the bed.

    The next morning, the outside thermometer read 42 degrees. Marjorie put on socks, two shirts and went to see about her father. He was still asleep, lying on his back with an old sleeping bag pulled up around his neck. The storeroom felt strangely warm and damp. She found the string and pulled on the overhead bulb. He sat up. He slept in his sacred Mormon garments, an undershirt and pants that might once have been white.

    "What's this?" She pointed to her pressure cooker, whistling on top of her husband's camp stove.

    "I got cold last night."

    "And you heated the place with a pressure cooker? The thing could have exploded.     You could have burned us all up in our beds."

    "But I didn't, did I?" He sounded pleased.

    Marjorie grabbed the sleeping bag and used a corner to lift the pot off the flame, burning her hand before she could set it down. "Damn, damn, damn." She turned on him, sitting on the side of the cot scratching his head. "This is the last straw, Daddy. You're killing yourself, and I can't stand watching you do it. You can be as crazy as you damn well please, but you need to do it somewhere else." She was crying now, wiping her nose on her sleeve.

    He didn't appear to hear. Rummaging inside the alligator bag, pulling out a beat-up tape player. "Listen to this, little honey." Out of the crackling static came the sound of ukuleles and two voices, tenor and soprano, harmonizing.

    I'll be loving yooou, ooh ooh oooh, ooh ooh oooh oooh . . ."

    "That's you and Mama doing The Hawaiian Love Song."

    He nodded. "The Singing Sweethearts, back when we were touring the country."

    "Will you love me too, ooh ooh oooh, ooh ooh ooh oooh?"

    He patted the cot and she sat down, letting him put one long arm around her. She allowed herself to remember when they were happy, before the divorce, before her mother's drinking and the cancer, before he started wearing sacred garments. She laid her head against his shoulder, breathing in the smell.

    The same smell she'd leaned into that night when she was 9 and the motor quit in the middle of the Ten Thousand Islands, with nothing to eat but the three small snapper they'd caught and night coming on, the bull gators bellowing like the trumpets of hell. It could have been any of a dozen nights. All their fishing trips ended with something breaking down. On this particular night, the mosquitoes arrived in a cloud, and her father said they'd have to jump overboard and breathe through a cattail. When Marjorie started to cry, he laughed at his joke, his little belly going up and down, and pulled a matted army blanket out of the boat locker, wrapping it like a tent around them. She inhaled the smell of fishy, mildewed wool and his body. "You'll see," he said. "Everything will come out all right."

    On that fishing trip, on all their trips, everything had. He'd found a broken Baby Ruth bar in his fishing vest and they divided it, chewing slowly, licking the melted chocolate off the paper. Outside the blanket, mosquitoes whined. When day came, he'd cleaned the spark plugs with his special mixture of ear wax and gasoline and got the motor going.

    The static-filled song came to an end. They sat on the cot in silence. In spite of the failed emu ranch, the Mormon software genius who'd gone bankrupt with a big chunk of the Trust's money, and now, the air-powered welder, whose inventor would never sell a machine but wouldn't stop trying until he exhausted her father's credit or wrecked his truck, probably both - so far, she had to admit, he was right. Everything had turned out okay.

***

Norma Watkins is a frequent contributor to Sunday Journal. Her memoir, The Last Resort, was published by the University Press of Mississippi in 2011.

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