I was 25 that autumn, living in the rural township of Center City, Minnesota, with my husband and children: Sophie, a feisty foal at two, and Max, a round-bellied baby just stretching past colic. Our old Victorian home, all gingerbread and sloping floorboards, overlooked North Center Lake, and, although I didn’t yet see this, all that wide open blue made for a painterly but desolate view. I was lonely in those years, full of longing. I imagined, as many do, especially in the liquid dreamscape of new parenthood, that I might finally speak to my parents about certain lost things, like my childhood. On this singular fall day, I wanted to understand what my father knew about my stepfather Mafia, the other man I called daddy. The man who, with his strong hairy hands, shaped me into the woman I would become.
When my parents divorced — I was two then — my father would come on Saturdays to take me to the Duluth Zoo. I loved these outings even though I saw, through some watery precognitive lens, that the zoo was a bleak and barren place. This was the very early 1970s. Lions and tigers in tiny metal cages, yowling, pacing. Bears, much the same. Monkeys, too, though maybe monkeys came later, at different zoos. “Poor things,” my father would say as the lions banged themselves against the bars. Sometimes, he’d shove his hands into his pockets and chuckle a little in a way I didn’t understand. As we ambled through the exhibits, my father would buy us clouds of pink cotton candy, red-white-and-blue snow cones, and popcorn in festive theater-style boxes. When it was over, he would, to soften my sadness, pause near the exit at that magical glass-fronted machine. There, he’d boost me up to drop in two quarters, then set me down again to watch in amazement as the machine molded a waxy animal figurine right before my eyes, then spit it out, hot and soft and off-gassing, right into my cupped palms. For years, I saved those animals, breathed them in, even though, once cooled and hardened, they lost their comforting plasticky scent. That didn’t matter, though. I could conjure it if I closed my eyes. I still can.
They smelled like love.
My father has never lost his temper in my presence. He is a gentle human, and, as a child, I loved that about him most of all. But gentleness and love are not the same.
In 1993, we still paid by the minute for long-distance calls. My aim the afternoon I phoned my father was to somehow, with reasonable efficiency, reach the point, reach the shadowed center of my childhood, and feel my way into what he knew of it. Except, I’d only ever traveled this route with my mind’s eye, or in nightmares. I had no map for reaching this place in the light of day, with words as my only transportation. Already, Max was stirring from sleep and Sophie was feverishly shredding the vitamin catalog I’d forfeited to distract her. I took a breath and launched into a tribute to those distant zoo days, my love for them. “And all those treats,” I said.
“I knew you didn’t get treats with your mom,” he said.
“I was too afraid to ask.”
“She was so hard on you.”
It seemed a door had swung open then — yellow light spilled onto the floor of my mind. “She could…” I wasn’t sure how to say it. But there was that open door, that light. “She could be so scary — the way she lashed out. Did you know that about her back then?”
“Sure,” he said. “That’s why we divorced.”
Once my parents split up, change burned hot. Or maybe it’s only that I wasn’t old enough to notice change before the divorce, and then I was. Both my father and mother remarried within two years of divorcing. My stepmother, Debbie, at 19, studied music at the University of Minnesota Duluth. Ten years younger than my father, Debbie had little interest in playing house with children who weren’t her own. My mother didn’t attend the wedding — I don’t suppose she was invited as per 1970s norms. But she did sew a party dress for me — white cotton with delicate pink flowers and a wide, shiny sash around the waist. My mother curled my hair too, and tied it back with bright ribbons. She sent me off with a gift-wrapped box for the bride and groom. This — to be the bearer of a gift! — was thrilling. Especially because I didn’t know what the box held. I wanted my father and Debbie to open it now. I begged and begged. I lacked any understanding of wedding protocols and could fathom neither their nonchalant stalling nor their subsequent requests that I settle down. I know only that later, my mother spanked me with a hairbrush on my bare bottom for misbehaving at the wedding. Apparently, Debbie told on me for pestering. Or maybe my father did. Regardless, the spanking hurt. Afterward, the newlyweds moved three hours south, to Minneapolis. It may as well have been Alaska or Hawaii or even the moon, because now I saw my father only once a year, in summertime.
He still took me to the zoo.
When speaking of the past, my father’s voice grew almost as animated as Sophie’s destruction of the vitamin catalog. He repeated how my mother had always been like this or that, how her mean streak and short fuse had been too much for him. He spoke, too, about her hard-drinking uncles. “You know they once sawed—”
“A house in half,” I finished for him. On one hand, I was happy just listening to his voice, feeling how it unspooled through the magic of Ma Bell all the way from Florida to Minnesota. On the other hand, I didn’t want to hear about Mom’s uncles, whom I’d heard about a million times from Mom. I wanted to hear about my father himself, and what he really understood of my childhood in Wyoming, of Mafia’s shadowy hands reaching for me, his nostrils flaring with excitement.
Mafia was Italian, which is how he got his nickname, but he spoke only in English with formalities and vulgarities in equal measure. Like, You had better reconsider your behavior, young lady, and I would suggest you do so sooner than later, or, Goddamn it to hell, you think I asked you to pick up your garbage just for shits and giggles? Get off your ass before I show you a world of hurt!
A little more than a year after they married, Mom and Mafia had a baby — my sister Rachael — and a little more than a year after that, we moved to Wyoming for the oil jobs. We knew no one in Wyoming. During six years under those mean mountains, not a single relative from Mom’s or Mafia’s side visited. What I believed then and for a long time after: we were completely alone in those endless fields of dust. No one could have known about Mafia. How could they?
Mafia was a serial pedophile.
I was four.
“Mom’s not speaking to me,” I told my father as fallen leaves swirled in tight cyclones outside the kitchen window. I was steering us away from Mom’s uncles and back to the point. “She drove out here to see our new house, visit Sophie, and we got to talking about Wyoming, and Mafia. Then she blew up and hasn’t spoken to me since.” I paused. “She’s never even met Max.” I shifted my son from one nipple to the other, tucked a tendril of sweaty blonde hair behind his ear. “He’s four months now, by the way.”
“She’s always had that temper,” my father said again. “I don’t know how you managed.”
I felt strangely as if my father were speaking to someone else, someone who was not his daughter. I wanted him to connect our conversation to the little girl I’d once been. “I’m just … I guess the reason Mom stormed out is because she admitted, accidentally, I think, that she always knew about Mafia. Something about how she tried back then to make him get counseling for what he was doing to me? I had no idea she knew all along that Mafia was molesting me, years before I told.” My heart was beating so hard I felt faint. Max pulled off the nipple and arched his back. I hefted him onto my shoulder. “You know what I mean?” I said to my dad.
“Sure,” he said. “I know what you mean. I knew she knew. I knew, too. I think everyone knew.”
Once a week during those first years in Wyoming, my mother would drag a chair to the kitchen sink and beckon me — hair washing day. Fine and silky, my hair tangled at the slightest provocation. My mother tried something called cream rinse, but my hair still thatched itself together after every wash. Combing wrought tears from me and frustration from her. This must be why, for Christmas 1976, my father sent a Sunbeam tangle-free electric comb. Such an interesting, useless contraption. I tried to love it because I received few presents and was inclined to love them all.
Also, I loved my father.
I wish I knew exactly what happened after my father said, “I knew back then. I think everyone knew.” But it’s as if the film strip ends there, the way film strips used to do in Miss Lavelle’s first-grade classroom, the tail end of translucence flapping, the big metal reel spinning pointlessly in the dark until Miss Lavelle would flip the light back on and break the spell for good. I know what did not happen. I did not cry, throw the phone, halt the conversation. I did not ask my father why he did nothing, if he knew — if “everyone knew” — that a grown man was molesting his four-year-old. His five-year-old. His six-year-old. His seven-year-old. His eight-year-old. His nine-year-old. His 10-year-old. His daughter.
The reason it stopped was that Mafia left. It happened after school one October day. He took me up to the bed he shared with my mother, pulled my pants down, and said goodbye. Then he drove away in his red truck, all the way back to Duluth.
I never saw him again.
Two years after Mafia left Wyoming, we left, too. My mother decided she wanted to go to college, and not in Wyoming. “The University of Minnesota is better,” she said. “Besides, it’s your father’s turn to have you.” This is how I found myself clambering out of the front seat of a U-Haul onto my father’s manicured lawn in a suburb northeast of Minneapolis. He hadn’t moved to Florida yet — that would come four years later. But he and Debbie did now have two small children of their own, and Debbie recoiled at adding a preteen daughter who didn’t know how to properly clean a bathroom. “Didn’t your mother teach you anything?” she would say. Unsurprisingly, my father’s turn ended swiftly. But my mother wanted no backsies, so the return fell apart. Eventually, the foster care system had to take a turn — first with me, then my sister Rachael.
I could not bring myself to love the tangle-free electric comb. My father’s gifts often contained melancholy. I loved the transistor radio he sent when I was 10, but the footed pajamas the following Christmas were misdirected. I wasn’t a baby! Still, I’d have appreciated the pajamas more had I known that soon enough, my father would stop sending Christmas gifts altogether. For some string of years, he sent birthday cards with $50 checks. Eventually, those, too, evaporated. I don’t know why. Maybe I didn’t send my father enough gifts. When I was little, I loved saving my birthday money from my Nana to send him “soap on a rope.” When I grew up, I’d send Harry and David holiday baskets. Those pears and caramels, while impersonal, were surely better than the birthday package I assembled soon after that unnerving phone call about everyone knowing everything all along. Note that retail options in our rural township were severely limited. I set out with Sophie at my side, clutching my hand, and Max in the stroller, which I steered effortfully with my other hand as we edged down the steep sidewalk to Center City Drug in a light, cold rain. The old-time pharmacy had a heavy glass door, which I held open with my shoulder as I hefted the wet stroller through. Inside were six or seven dusty aisles’ worth of miscellaneous over-the-counter drugs plus off-brand cosmetics, cleaning products, reading glasses, and an entire shelf of porcelain figurines. I found my best options beside the rain-streaked window, on two spinner displays, one holding outdated cassette tapes and the other filled with paperbacks. From the first, I unearthed a Kenny Rogers album — 20 Greatest Hits. Did my father like Kenny Rogers? Max was starting to cry, and Sophie clutched a figurine in each fist. I threw in some chocolates and a Stephen King novel to hedge my bets.
The pharmacist himself, a kindly man in his 50s with a neatly trimmed beard and aviator glasses, rang up my purchases. He looked, I couldn’t help but notice, a little like my father. “Here you are,” he said. “Careful out there — freezing rain’s comin’.”
When I was 18 years old, I got the notion — as if compelled by an outside force — to visit my father in Florida over Christmas. I’d recently aged out of foster care and hadn’t celebrated anything resembling a family holiday in many years. And I had enough money from my job at Speedy Market to buy a ticket on Northwest Airlines. I wore a lot of black turtlenecks in those days, and sat in the plane’s smoking section with my endless Marlboro Lights and diet soda.
At first, the visit felt almost surreal in its normalcy. Debbie behaved like an aunt I’d never met. My younger half-sister, Jenny, nine or 10 at the time, was curious about me in a friendly way, recalling how I’d lived with her for a little while when she was in preschool. “Did you used to melt cheese on crackers in the microwave?” Jenny asked.
“I did,” I said. “After school.”
“I knew it!” Jubilance overcame Jenny as she snapped this stray piece into the puzzle of memory.
My father clearly adored Jenny, who held his hand often and with an easy affection. But as we strolled the wide, sun-speckled paths of SeaWorld on the second day of my visit, it was I who spontaneously reached for my father’s hand. It was smaller than I remembered, and warm. A lump formed in my throat. I held on to my father all the way from the Stingray Lagoon past the Dolphin Cove and Dolphin Theater to the big aquarium, where he finally pulled away to fish something from his pocket.
Later that night, the lump in my throat became a scratch and then a fire as I lost my voice completely and spiked a fever of 104 degrees. I spent the holiday in bed, trembling and sweating through the last nights I would ever spend in my father’s home.
This would also be our last trip to a zoo.
In 2018, I attended a writing conference in Tampa. My daughter Sophie, beautifully grown but still feisty, thankfully, had become a writer, too, and we were sharing an Airbnb on Davis Island, a strip of land across the bridge from the conference center. At the tip of Davis Island, nearest the mainland, sat Tampa General, where my father had a cardiology appointment the first morning of the conference. He’d recently suffered another serious heart incident and undergone some procedure. I knew about his appointment because I’d phoned him several times about my trip, but we hadn’t firmed up plans. I felt obligated to keep trying. Not only was I actually in Tampa, after all, but Sophie was, too. And my father was 75. Plus, his heart.
“The thing is, Deb has her Medicare reporting due,” my father said when I finally reached him. “She can’t spare the time to drive me.” My stepmother works as a hospital administrator — or maybe she’s a private consultant now. Either way, she could not join us for lunch or wait in Tampa while we lunched or drive back and forth from their suburban home to retrieve my father if he spent an hour at lunch — or even 30 minutes at coffee, as I suggested as an alternative — with Sophie and me. Nothing was possible. The only option, since my father wasn’t allowed to drive due to the heart procedure, was for Debbie to drive him straight home after his appointment. “But you could come this way for dinner,” he said. Sophie and I had no car, and an Uber ride to my father’s suburb would cost about $100 round trip.
My plastic zoo animals disappeared somewhere in Wyoming. We moved a lot — five times during those six years — and I imagine they got swept away during a packing frenzy. They were just plastic zoo animals. Neither precious nor valuable. Still, I’d like to squeeze one of them in my hand, feel its plastic skin, imagine its original warmth as it shot from the mouth of the machine into my hands. I’d like to look at its perfect little face, and remember when it was real. Those molded zoo animals used to say to me, “Yes.” I wonder what they would say to me now.
Sophie and I Ubered to my father’s house at the end of that first long, exhausting day of conferencing. “Thank you for doing this,” I told Sophie. “I don’t think I could do it alone.” Debbie opened the door when we arrived. Her hair was curlier than I remembered. Two little dogs hovered behind her. She exclaimed over Sophie, how she’d grown in the decade or so since Debbie had last briefly seen her. “Jack,” Debbie called, and my father appeared in the atrium. He shuffled under the weight of his oxygen backpack. He looked smaller, much smaller, than I’d ever seen him. “The restaurant’s just a few minutes down the road,” Debbie said. I asked if she would be driving us. She shrugged and repeated that it was just a few minutes down the road. My father clasped his keys.
The restaurant was huge, bright, and deafening, one room sprawling into the next. Sophie and I, both vegetarians, ordered together: an appetizer, salad, and entrée to share, which proved a shocking amount of food. My father’s entrée, in contrast, was sensibly portioned — some kind of shellfish, I think. We all conversed, or tried to. Between the restaurant’s distracting din, my father’s hearing loss, and the unhandy reality of our unshared lives, we mostly repeated ourselves until one of us pretended to understand.
In the 1970s, divorce was stigmatized but simple. When other kids asked about my dad, I’d say, “I don’t have a dad.” This was how all kids of divorce — however few of them I knew back then — spoke. But I did have a dad. He was out there through it all, even if it didn’t feel that way when I was little. He was there. He was there, and he knew. So, was he there?
It’s a riddle with no answer.
In my father’s driveway, Sophie and I climbed down from the truck with our teetering to-go boxes. I realized it was going to take a while for our Uber to arrive, and my father invited us in. It felt too awkward to refuse. Would we otherwise wait in his driveway? My father typed some numbers into the front-door keypad. A beep, a red flash. Another try, another red flash. “Damn thing never works,” my father muttered as he dug out his phone to call Debbie. Sophie and I exchanged glances.
Once Debbie let us in, she and my father sat side by side on a small sofa with their backs to the open staircase, while Sophie and I sat on another small sofa, facing them. Between us, those two little dogs, wagging their tails and wiggling around on their backs, shamelessly begging for love. One wore a diaper, which I noted out loud. “She’s a rescue,” Debbie said. “Obviously abused. Never even housetrained. It’s a crime, how some people treat animals.”
“It makes me sick,” my father said angrily. “People who hurt animals should be locked up. She wouldn’t even let us touch her at first, she was so traumatized. But you’re okay now, aren’t you? Aren’t you?” He leaned down to tousle the dog’s silky fur.
I slid off the sofa onto the cool tile floor and called to diaper-dog. She bounded over to lick my hands, my arms, my face. She played and panted and wriggled. I nuzzled her, and she twisted and whined with joy. Something in me cracked then. I burst out laughing.
The ceiling-height windows edging the front door gleamed suddenly as two streams of light shot through the dark glass, briefly revealing low smudges from the dogs’ noses and paws and lighting the distance between here and there. The way back home.
Jeannine Ouellette’s debut memoir, The Part That Burns, was a Kirkus Top 100 Indie Book of the 2021, a finalist for the Next Generation Indie Book Award in Women’s Literature, and received starred reviews from both Kirkus and Publishers Weekly. Jeannine’s work appears widely in literary journals and has been published or is forthcoming in many anthologies, including Ms. Aligned: Women Writing About Men; Women’s Lives: Multicultural Perspectives; and Passed On: Daughters Write About Father Loss, Lack, and Legacy. She teaches creative writing through the Minnesota Prison Writing Workshop, The University of Minnesota, and Elephant Rock, an independent program she founded in 2012. She is working on her first novel.