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My dad died on the night my bathwater ran with an electric current in it. Or maybe it was the other way around. My water ran electric on the night my father died. In some ways that sounds better, more poetic, I guess. For one thing, it scans. Ba-duh ba-duh ba-duh ba-duh ba- duh ba-duh ba-duh. But it isn’t truly accurate as to what it felt like at the time. It felt more like the first way.

It was about a month ago, and you’d think I’d have figured out by now which way to put it. Harris says the whole worry is stupid, the whole question of how to put it, be- cause it makes it sound like I’m debating some point of causality, as if the two events were in some way related. Linked. Which they obviously were not. The water ran electric because the house was not properly grounded. Because my electrician is an asshole. And always has been. And ought to be shot. Or at the very least not be an electrician anymore. My father died because he walked in front of a train. On purpose. Like in a movie. Like Anna Karenina. Because he was a whack job. Mentally ill. And always had been. No connection. Unless you think having a lousy electrician you don’t fire and a lousy father who offs himself is some kind of connection, which even I do not think. So in the end it’s just timing. And timing is nothing, meaningless, a slim quality to build any conclusion around.

That’s Harris’s point, anyway. That timing isn’t everything, like people say it is. It’s bull. And that’s Harris pretty much all around. Harris is a piece of work. Forty-seven years old, pretty fat now, he’s got these lingering tufts of leftover hair sprouting all over him, any which way. He’s got skin like badly mashed potatoes. He’s got eyes like he knows perfectly well he’s wrong. About everything. All the time. And couldn’t care less. He works in quality control at the local paper plant. Which is a joke, since neither quality nor control, nor any imaginable combination of the two that does not involve adding the words “lack of” or “out of,” can be applied to him. And he is just who you would expect to take you on about something like this. Just exactly who you would expect to pull the plug on trying to find meaning in anything. While he leans into my fridge, scrounging, foraging, investigating, making himself at home, taking it upon himself to debunk phenomena like coincidence. Like timing.

I used to be married to Harris and I know Harris well. Last year, just about halfway through realizing he had turned into a walking, talking laundry list of human decline, I threw him out. Harris. His cigarettes. His underpants. His poking through my food. His need to talk me out of things. Out he went. Still, he comes back around to see our daughter, Allison, who’s four now. Or at least that’s why he says he comes back. That is why Harris claims he is still always around. The fact is, though, that there is only so left he’ll ever agree to be. Only so thrown out. Only so gone he ever gets.

“Don’t you believe in anything?” I asked him, right while he walked suitcase number one out my front door.

“Nope,” he answered me, standing there under a street- light, his luggage kind of tilting him with its weight. “Nope.” He shook his head. “Not a goddamned thing.” And Harris, he just walked away, as they say, into the night.

He was the one I called. When it happened. My father. The water. All of that. About which fact I have nothing to say. Except that old habits die hard. And that if I could remember which part I told him first, I might have some idea about this whole how-to-put-it question. Either I told him my father was dead, and then that I had been bathing Allison when the bathwater shocked us both. Or I put it the other way around. I know that Allison was screaming bloody murder, dancing this awful naked wet jitterbug of fear around my bedroom. Wouldn’t even let me towel her off, because she didn’t want to be touched. By anything. Ever again. Ever. And I had this phone in my hand. This phone that had rung just as I was reaching for it, so I just answered it and said hello. And then a man asked me, some man on the phone asked me if I was my father’s daughter, because if I was, there had been an accident. It was 911 calling me. If you can believe it. Them calling me.

“But I was just going to call you,” I said. Then I heard what was being told to me, and I asked, “What kind of accident?” And then I took that in. The train, the dead, the my-father-is-over part. And then I called Harris. And told him something. I’m still just not sure exactly what. But I know I told him to come. I know I did that. So this one’s on me, I guess.

Having a parent die who is crazy is different from having a parent die who isn’t crazy. I know because I have had both kinds, and they have both died. My mother was just so normal you couldn’t even be in the room with her and Dad both without losing all belief in God. In anything. In any- thing that made sense of anything. It just all seemed too impossible. Which, if you ask me, is why I married the king of nothingness in the first place. Why Harris’s essentially unpleasant view of the world as a random and pointless sphere held some appeal. I mean, she was nice, my mom. She was pleasant. She was a mom. Picture a mom. Go ahead. You get the idea. Picture her cooking meals, coming to assemblies, chatting on the phone with her other mom friends. Walking the dog. Making your teacher smile at pickup at the end of the day. Making your teacher like you more. Nice. Normal. Smart enough. Pretty enough. But not too pretty. A real mom.
Now you explain my father to me. What he was doing in that house with her. When he was there. Or in those wed- ding pictures. Or on my birth certificate. You go ahead and make some sense of that, because I have pretty much given up. My earliest memory of my father was of visiting him in a linoleum room, little windows, bars on them, long tables, scattered with art supplies. Construction paper. Clay. Pipe cleaners. Glue. I must’ve been about Allison’s age. Four, maybe three. I know I’d met him before that, because it wasn’t like we were introduced or anything. That’s just the first image I have of him. In the Art Room. At the Place. He had made a picture for Mom. A collage she admired like it was mine. Which it easily could have been. Red paper, shiny foil shit glued on it. It ended up on our fridge. And there was a woman there on a sofa who stared at me the whole time. That’s all.

That’s the whole thing. My first memory of my father. Except he isn’t even in it. Not if you look carefully. He isn’t there.

When I met Harris, in a bar about ten years ago, I was just twenties, young twenties, and he was the first person who ever said to me “So what?” when I told him about my dad. I was going on and on about how bad it’s been, about this horror and that, how many times he was in the bin, how long he stayed, which birthdays Dad missed, and what graduations he ruined. And Harris, he just hoists a beer and shrugs: “So what?” I guess that was love. Not his saying it. Me hearing it. “So what?” I heard freedom in that. Like a great big chalkboard eraser getting rid of all that shit. So what. That won me over. Until I got sick of it. Then really sick of it. And then threw him out.

I mean, it’s hard to build a whole life around someone saying “So what.” Frankly, I think nine years was a pretty damned good stretch.

 

So I called Harris that night, and I called my same asshole electrician too. But the difference was that when I heard the electrician answer the phone I just hung up. Then I pulled out the yellow pages and went for the biggest, glossiest, most expensive ad I could find. The kind of ad that has about sixteen phone numbers and, according to time of day. Emergency and all. And that was the one I called. Because this was an emergency. I mean, for God’s sake, if electric water isn’t an emergency, what is? For one thing, not my father, at that point. That much I had taken in. There was absolutely nothing I could do to help him. Which was actually not news; there had never been anything much I could do for him. But it was official now, in some way it hadn’t been before.

“It won’t kill you,” the guy said who answered the phone, and right away I liked that I had never heard his voice before. I kind of trusted that quality in him. “You’re not in any danger. The house isn’t going to burn down. And you aren’t going to be electrocuted if you need coffee or something. Maybe wear rubber gloves. Wear rubber shoes. Sneakers, maybe. I’ll come in the morning. By eight. I’ll be there at eight.”

“That’s good,” I said, hearing Harris let himself in downstairs. “That’s great.”

 

 

Excerpted from IF I LOVED YOU, I WOULD TELL YOU THIS by Robin Black. Copyright © 2010 by Robin Black. Excerpted by permission of Random House Publishing Group, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

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ROBIN BLACK's story collection If I Loved You, I Would Tell You This, (Random House, 2010) was a finalist for the Frank O'Connor International Short Fiction Competition, a summer reading pick for O. Magazine, among the Best Books of 2010 in The San Francisco Chronicle and The Irish Times, and the winner of the Athenaeum of Philadelphia Literary Award. Her essays and stories have recently appeared in Conde Nast Traveler UK, O. Magazine, The New York Times Magazine, Georgia Review, One Story, The Southern Review and others. The paperback appears this week. At work on a novel, also to be published by Random House, Robin lives in the Philadelphia area with her family.

4 responses to “An Excerpt from If I Loved You, I Would Tell You This

  1. Irene Zion says:

    Robin,

    I really enjoyed reading this. You write very well.
    I have to say my favorite line was this, about Harris:
    “he had turned into a walking, talking laundry list of human decline,”
    Boy, that describes a lot in a few words.

  2. Jessica Blau says:

    Just today over lunch, Dylan Landis told me I’d love this book. After reading this excerpt, I’m sure she’s right! I look forward to reading the whole thing.

  3. Karen says:

    Wow Robin, that was a pretty amazing read! Makes me want more. Off to order the book right now.

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