by Samantha K. Smith
I tried to capture her like a still frame torn from a reel of film—ten years old, my age, a newly minted fifth grader sitting in the car next to her father as he drove down the Belt Parkway just like Dad and I were.
“Head came off in the glove box,” Dad said.
Maybe a kite grabbed her eye, one that poked through the cloudless skyline. She could have trailed it as it soared toward the Verrazano Bridge. Outside her window, kids would be rollerblading on the promenade, their helmets peeking above the median. The water behind them rippling, catching the sun, reflecting gemlike along the bay. A split second. A father’s error in judgment.
Dad and I were on our way to a travel basketball tryout in Queens when he told me about her. There were some stories, his “funny ones,” that he repeated often, each time nailing the intonations at the exact moment. A male driver’s bowling ball had decapitated him when he crashed his car. By the time my father arrived on scene, the vehicle was engulfed in flames.
“Couldn’t tell the difference between the ball or the head.”
Each story defined itself in a one-liner. He laughed hard with each telling of the bowling ball story; so hard, tears forced their way down his cheeks. His audience, my ten-year-old girl friends, gave nervous chuckles from the backseat.
But with the story of the little girl whose head came off, he said it just once, to me, unloading it precisely like a bullet from his gun.
Days before the drive where I learned about her, Dad had watched me tryout for a different travel basketball team, the Lady Diamonds, on Staten Island where we lived. He sat in the bleachers with the weight of his forearms on his thighs, carefully scrutinizing my performance.
In the months leading up to the tryouts, Dad and I had walked the shortcut behind our house to the YMCA gym to practice. I wove around his 6’4” frame for the post up and drive to the basket; we played one-on-one until the purple orange glow from the horizon spilled across the wooden court. We had left the final tryout certain I’d made the cut, planning ahead what weekends we’d travel out of town together for the away tournaments.
I waited up past my bedtime for the call, pumping my legs back and forth with electric intensity on the kitchen bench, the same place I waited for Dad after one of his long shifts at work. The phone rang. It would only ring if I were on the roster—coach said they wouldn’t call otherwise—and I watched as Mom answered, first smiling then not, as she turned her back to me and walked farther into the room. The coach placed a courtesy call feeling the need to explain how he wanted his team “small and fast,” and though his first comment seemed obvious given my height, the other came like a slap to the back of the head.
Dad was at work but she must’ve told him how I knelt down, placed my head in between the couch cushions and screamed. Could it have been the first time my heart ached, or was it more like blood rushing to my head all at once?
Basketball was everything because Dad was everything. Dad was mine: in the gym, and on trips to the games, and on weekends out of town. Him. Just to myself. Away from my mother and four siblings and friends and emergencies that all required his attentions. The failure, my failure, to make the team was a mounting disappointment. I blamed my long, slow legs.
I woke up the next morning to find Dad in the same spot I’d waited at the kitchen table the night before. One of his fists clenched down like a paperweight on the local news. His coffee mug stood beside him untouched, steam snaking its way to the ceiling. Cigarette smoke clung to the red and black-checkered flannel he wore on weekends.
“It’s all political on this island,” Dad said. He tugged the page so hard it ripped. His pointer finger, now black from the ink, stopped short on the citywide sports announcements. I sat adjacent to him and placed my Silly Putty on the table. He freed the sheet of funny pages from the stack and, without looking up, slid them over to me. I mashed the putty over Dennis the Menace, peeling it back with the rascal I likened to Dad as a boy.
“You don’t worry about this,” he said. “You hear me? We’ll find you a better team, Bud. One that’ll kick The Lady Diamonds’ ass.” I stifled a proud smile.
“What’s political mean?”
“It means everyone’s out for themselves. Gotta get your friends’ kids on the team.” He pointed to a block of text. It seemed not only I, but he too had a point to prove; we had a new tryout in Queens the next week and according to Dad this coach, who won state championships, knew what he was doing.
We’d exited the Verrazano on the Brooklyn side, bound for the small gymnasium in Queens. Dad abandoned the gearshift, covering my left hand with his right. He squeezed my fingers and smiled, holding his gaze until I smiled back. I leaned forward to get a closer look outside, pulling the cross strap on the seatbelt behind my back. It was a rare day in the city—so still you could hear the sound of your breath as you exhaled. The Parkway opened up from the bridge and I slid my body closer toward my side of the car as it wove along the shore while the wind gently tugged at the bay.
“Seatbelt,” Dad said, releasing my hand. I returned the strap to cross me. He pointed to the glove compartment and I grabbed his Marlboros. He pulled one from the pack and without pause I pressed the button to ignite the car lighter.
Classic rock filled the Honda and his left hand tapped the steering wheel in beat to Lynyrd Skynyrd’s guitar. A kite cut through the wind, darting and swerving above us. The string was attached to a child I knew was there but couldn’t see.
Dad lifted his arm across me, pointing out my window.
“Girl your age killed right there,” he said.
He knew to wait, let it sink in, heightening tension. His tapping stopped and he lowered the radio to a distant hum.
I fought the urge to look outside, keeping my eyes on him instead. Scruff hemmed in his jawline. Shortly after we got back home, he’d have to head out for his midnight shift. That is when I’d slip into the bathroom after he’d been in there preparing for work. Alone, I’d inhale his rich scent: the sting of shaving cream with pricks of black hair still congealed to the sink that I would later rinse for him, the waft of deodorant and roll on cologne he used to mask the cigarettes he smoked in the car, a secret kept from Mom because she hated when he smoked around us kids. I fought the urge to reach out for him and run my hand against the stubble on his cheek.
“Father swerved and hit the guardrail,” he said. I searched for flowers, wreaths, and dents in the metal, but it happened years before and there was nothing left. I’d never considered the function of guardrails before; a precaution to keep people safe, this time, did the opposite.
“Head came off in the glove box.”
Whenever Dad got in the car after work, he’d pass me his gun, his shield and his smokes so I could stow them in the glove compartment. His eyes were trained on the road ahead. I searched for the kite, now a blur in the rearview mirror.
Of all the questions I had, I chose the one that weighed heaviest on my mind.
“Her father lived?” I faced him.
I allowed space for Dad’s silences when we were together. I never badgered him with questions he wouldn’t, or couldn’t, answer. I took his stories just as they were and locked them away within me.
Parting his lips, he fished a Marlboro from the pack. I pulled out the car lighter and cradled it as he brought his mouth close to suck in smoke. Dad twisted the radio knob turning the music back up again. His hand resumed its tapping.
I made the Queens Magic as a game starting forward.
The fact that I got cut from the Diamonds became another one of Dad’s stories. We were sitting around a picnic table overlooking the crystalline water of our summerhouse. The scruff around Dad’s chin was now coarse and graying in places. He wouldn’t shave it until an hour before his night shift at the trucking company. Since he retired from the department, Dad spent more time at the lake than he did with us. He passed long, sunny days alone: fishing, rescuing plants abandoned on the road to rejuvenate in his garden, and by dusk, crushing twelve packs of Budweiser next to the fire.
Long after I’d stopped caring about getting the shaft for the team, my father retold the story with vigor, so vivid it seemed to have happened months, not years, before. He mentioned a part I’d forgot or considered unimportant at the time. By his hesitation, he let me know it’s “the kicker”— his one liner. He leans in with one hand around my right shoulder, as he describes how that same Diamonds’ coach who cut me asked me to join their team for playoffs later in the season. Dad’s cheeks rose high on his face forcing his eyes into a squint. He waited until everyone heard him.
“We turned him down,” Dad said.
The lake air grew humid with each hour; casting the garden in a slick, moonlit shine. Dad cracked another Bud and looked up at the stars, each constellation burning holes through the blanket of darkness. I mentioned the Belt and the glove compartment, and he came to a halt mid sip.
“How was the father afterwards?” I finally asked, trying to piece together how Dad felt when he saw the girl. He finished the can before answering, pushing the empty next to a collection of others.
He quickly changed the subject, wondering how my car was running after I got it back from the shop. He walked out to the porch with his cigarette and lighter, pulled his thumb back on the trigger, lit a small flame, brought it close to his face: a pull and release. He wouldn’t bother to shave; there was no time now.
As I made my way to our car, Dad lowered himself into a new version of the same old beat up Honda. He’d follow my husband and I out of the driveway, splitting off at the intersection for a long overnight haul upstate along desolate, snaking roads beside the Hudson River as he shuttled goods from one corporate warehouse to another.
Dispatch lost contact with his radio just after 2 a.m. At five in the morning, local police escorted paramedics to the nearest hospital where doctors called time of death. The car hugged a thick telephone pole on a sharp turn by the water. No longer in use, at one point in time the pole had been a signpost for lost dogs and ads for local babysitters. The rusted staples still clung to place in the rotting wood.
The windshield splintered in an intricately woven web, hood collapsed in on itself, bumper barely hanging on. I stood next to the passenger door, too crushed to open, the glass splayed in ragged shards at my feet. Cops who’d been up all night on the scene were ready for their morning coffee back on the couch at the station house.
I ducked level with the glove compartment thrown open with the force of the airbag, now deflated across the passenger seat. On the floor, where my feet would’ve been, were Dad’s gun, his smokes, and the lighter.
Samantha K. Smith is a native New Yorker, writer, adjunct instructor and managing editor of Epiphany magazine. Her work has appeared in Granta’s new voices series, The Common, Bustle, Tottenville Review and The Outlet of Electric Literature. Follow her on Twitter @samanthakristia.