"The Bath"


That November was a doozy. Ice, snow, cold. Dad was on the road non-stop, zig-zagging across the south, studying golf courses. He was head greenskeeper at our local course and he was taking the winter to learn what he could from southern courses open year-round. He had to shut his course down with the first early snowstorm in late-October. Unlucky for his course, but lucky for his trip. Before he drove off, he swore me in to my duties while he’d be gone.

I was standing in the cold wind, and he was sitting in his warm Chevy. He raised his right hand up and had me do the same. “Joseph R. Riles, it is your duty keep the sidewalks and driveway free of snow and ice; to help your mother keep the house clean and neat, and with the dishes after meals. And keep your room clean.” Mother didn’t hear any of this. She was already shut-up in the house, mad as could be that he’d actually take this trip. “And take care of your mother.” He promised to be home before Christmas. With that, he patted me once on the cheek and backed out of the driveway onto Highway 18.

Dad had been talking about this trip for years, but now that it was here, my mother wanted nothing to do with it. The day he left, she didn’t even say goodbye to him. She locked herself in the bedroom. She stayed in there all morning and all afternoon. I sat in my room all day, waiting for her to appear.

At five o’clock that night, she came out. She didn’t say a word. She walked straight downstairs and started making dinner as if nothing had happened. I followed her down and set the table. She made dinner—salisbury steak and frozen green beans—in silence. She was quiet like that for about a week. She barely said Boo.

Each night, as we sat down to eat, she’d pour herself a drink. She’d drink that one, and then, after dinner, she’d pour a second. By that time, she had started into him: Tony this, Tony that. She said his name—Tony—as though an oily hairball were lodged tight in her throat.

Then she said, “A loser, Joey, a loser.” I had been trying all day to get the courage up to call Julie Gaston and I was already nervous enough; I didn’t need to hear her say that. I forked the Hamburger Helper—noodles and hamburger and onions and peas—into my mouth.

“That’s what he is,” she said. “You’re the one who should be upset. He’s never here for you.”

I pushed my food from one side of my plate to the other; it left behind a pool of grease. “He’s working.”

“That’s right, I forgot. He’s providing this fancy life for us. Hamburger Helper, for crissake.” She got up from the table, her plate still half-full. “Take care of the dishes, hon?”

I nodded and drank the last of my milk. She went out to the living room and I hurried through the last of my supper. I listened as she turned the television on. Then she called out to me, “Make me a drink, hon. Just a splash of brandy.”

I did as I was told, and left the bottle on her TV tray next to her glass. She settled back into the couch with her drink.

Keeping the walks and drive free of ice and snow proved full-time work. It wasn’t even winter yet, and already I was tired of shoveling and chipping at the ice. I vowed to make the best of it. I would skate and sled. Mostly, though, I would dream about spring and green grass. And Julie Gaston.

Throughout late autumn and early winter, my father’s postcards came from Southern towns with funny names. I’d place the rest of the mail on the kitchen counter for my mother to look through when she got home, but the postcards only made her get angry. I began taking the postcards without showing her or telling her, taking them with me up to my bedroom. In the near-dark and quiet of late afternoon, I’d lay in bed and try saying the strange names out loud: Nacogdoches, Kosciusko, Socapatoy. Then, I’d try it without making any sound at all, mouthing the words slowly, feeling the odd blend of sounds in my jaw, my teeth, my tongue, my lips. Tangipahoa. Pocataligo. Wetumpka. Then I would remember.

The next morning when I’d arrive at school, when all the other kids were at their lockers or mingling in the hallways, I’d slip into the library. Mrs. Wittwer, the librarian, would be at her desk. “Hello, Mr. Riles,” she’d say.

“Hello, Mrs. Wittwer. Any new Encyclopedia Brown?”

“Not yet,” she’d say. “I’ll let you know.”

Then I’d make my way over to the rack of atlases, hidden from Mrs. Wittwer’s desk by the newspaper rack. I had memorized the page numbers of all the southern states Dad planned to visit—Alabama, page 6-7; Mississippi, 30-31; Oklahoma, 52-53, and Texas, 58-59—so I could go straight to them. I would trace my father’s path. I’d follow him wherever he went.

The day before I had raced home from school. I hadn’t had a postcard from my father in over two weeks but this day the one from Tahlequah arrived. It would be on pages sixty-six and sixty-seven. Oklahoma. Tahlequah. Tahlequah.

I had begun tucking the postcards under my mattress, as far away from my mother’s eyes as I could get them. But I heard the back door open and close. She was home early from work. I panicked and placed them in the drawer with my underwear. It had been two months since I had so much as shared one of them with my mother, and for several weeks they had arrived one every five or six days. My mother had overheard me. She poked her head into my room. “Talequah? You know he’s not coming back. You know that don’t you?”

But then on Sunday night, when he placed his weekly phone call, she would talk, talk, cry, fight, and by the end of the conversation she’d be laughing, telling him to hurry home. The calls ended a couple of weeks later. And the postcards were fewer and far between.

His postcard from