Excerpt from Kendra Fortmeyer’s “The Exposed Nest”
In his final year of graduate school, my father took a job as a bus driver.
He was writing his dissertation on the relationship between self-esteem and education in low-income minority communities, to be defended in early May. He was nearing forty, older than many of his graduate colleagues; an excitable man. Flecks of spittle collected in the corners of his mouth when he lectured over dinner about the latest case studies, the politics of academic publishing.
“There was a similar paper out of U of Chicago in 1992,” he told us over meatloaf and peas, his tongue coated white with mashed potato. “But the source material is long since outdated, and the focus is distinct enough that I think I can pull it off. I think.”
He lapsed into a depressed silence. Then he passed the salt to my mother, who hadn’t asked for it, and left the table, locked himself in his study. I saw nothing more of him that night except the sharp line of lamplight that creased the darkness of the hallway around his study door. And on the other side of it, the hushed sound of paper.
I had been in his study just once. I sneaked in under the quiet light of a late afternoon, the house humming empty while my mom ran simple errands in town. The cartoons on TV had been canceled for endless coverage of Princess Di’s death; I prowled through the house, poking first through my parents’ closet, then creeping, breathlessly, to my father’s office door.
It opened with a gentle push. I crept in on tentative feet, feeling the room inhale. The air inside was the musty bone- cold of museums. But despite the dizzy joy of being in a place I should not be, I quickly determined that the study held no appeal for me. It was muted and dull, a still life of grays and browns and jacketless library bindings.
I climbed into the swivel chair and rotated slowly in the chill air, taking in the shadows, the mounds of paper. I imagined that if I turned at just the right speed—not too quickly, perhaps tilting my head to the left, perhaps squinting my eyes—I would see what drew my father to this desk, night after night. I imagined that, spinning properly, I could become my father.
There was a noise downstairs. I leaped from the chair, plunging out of the room and down the hall. In the kitchen, my mother was unloading groceries. She glanced at my flushed and too-innocent face.
“Mitchell, what have you been getting into?” she asked. “Nothing,” I said. “Reading.”
“Reading,” she said.
“The TV got boring,” I said, and then, feeling I’d made a mistake, tried to backpedal. “Compared to the book, I mean. The books. Lots of them.”
She arched a brow but said nothing, bent to put the eggs away. I was eight years old and pleased to have surprised my mother. I imagined her telling my father later: Watch out, we might have another scholar on our hands!
I went to the living room, pulling down dusty tomes from the ornamental shelf. I selected for thickness. Upstairs, I flipped them open: the Odyssey, the Tragedies, Bleak House. Waiting for my father to come home, I imagined him finding me there, imagined the new respect in his eyes. I marched my X-Men figurines up and down the spines, Cyclops scaling the walls of William Shakespeare, Wolverine leaping from Moby-Dick. I climbed, with Jean Grey, the rungs of words like a ladder, carefully stretching my fingers into sentences. We crested the edge of Beowulf and came into a vast white space filled with light: my father waiting for me, smiling.
But Dad came home late that night, distracted and red-cheeked, mumbling about overdue fines. He took dinner straight to his study. My mother and I ate alone in the glow of the television. They were investigating Princess Diana’s driver. Mattel was issuing a commemorative doll.
I never went back into the study after that. It ceased to be a space that existed in my childhood landscape. My father appeared or disappeared between meals as if by magic. The only thing holding him to this earth was the yellow line of light that striped the hallway, guiding me back to bed if I got up in the night.
The bus driver job was the turning point. My father found the job listing in the paper, was elated.
“This is it,” he told my mother at breakfast. I was groggy over Frosted Flakes, still uncurling from sleep. “This is the angle I need. Don’t you see, Deb? This is what will set me apart.”
“Will you have the time?” she asked, tiredly. “Your defense is in a few months.”
“Four,” he said. “I know it all, Deb. I know it inside and out. This,” he said again, “is the angle I need.”
He laughed, suddenly, loudly. He reached across the table and shook my shoulders. Half-chewed Frosted Flakes bumped up against my teeth, blindly, like ships in the dark.
“This is it!” he shouted into my face. “Your dad’s a genius, Mitch! A genius!”
The new job kept my father out even more, absented him on weekends. My mother packed his dinners in waxed paper and Tupperwares. When he did come home, collapsing at the kitchen table, his face was worn with exhaustion. But some fierce light shined through. He began to approach the world in a new, almost pleading way.
“It’s really fascinating,” he said to my mother, to his colleagues at parties, pulling them aside and flipping open small, battered notebooks. “For years, we’ve been taking a top-down approach to sociology. This is life from the ground up.” He waited, to hear how this phrase affected his listeners—puce-necked Southern men in too-tight ties who frowned, cited studies. Sometimes he would say, again, “From the ground up.”
My mother was shy at these parties, made herself invisible. A pale woman, she left the burden of communication to my father. She would hover over me until I escaped to the yard with the other academics’ children, shrugging her from my shoulders. I would catch glimpses of her later, lingering bereft by the kitchen doors and offering to be of help, or sitting alone on lamplit sofas. In the early days of my father’s doctoral studies, other wives would try to engage my mother, women who seemed too bold and too colorful in comparison, birds of paradise coming to roost at her side. She did not make friends easily. Her terrible shyness, combined with an unconscious curve of her thin lips, made people suspect she was judging them. They left her alone in the end, defensively, staring over their shoulders and whispering about Daniel Parker’s snobby wife. Once, dozing on a couch, I heard a woman, thick with whiskey sours, say too loudly to her friend, “But it’s not like she has anything to be proud of anyway. She’s so skinny, it’s a wonder Dan doesn’t break her in half when he—” and her friend, laughing, said, “Deirdre.”
Halfway home, I realized they had been talking about my mother, and sat up in the backseat with a start. I stared at the backs of my parents’ heads, silhouetted against the striping streetlights as my father steered us home, their two separate bodies seeming so solid and so whole.
My mother, a nervous sleeper, stayed up late nights while my father was in training, leaving the lamp on. She took messages, left notes in uncertain detail beneath the phone. “Daniel, Lloyd Kinney called from NYU, says to call back, didn’t say what he wanted, important?”
While my mother worried, I was quietly ecstatic. I was in third grade, and for the first time in my life, I knew what to say my father did for a living. I had grown accustomed to the blankness that came over the faces of my friends’ parents who asked, their polite ohs when I said, “He’s a student.” My old picture books spelled out the acceptable parameters for grown-up life: teacher, doctor, firefighter. Now, I could point to a page and say, confidently, “There’s my dad.” Bus driver.
The day his uniforms came in, I begged him to put one on, to take a picture. He laughed. “Mitch, I look pretty snazzy in this old Halloween costume, huh?” He pulled me into the photo with him. I still have a copy: in it, I am grinning and mugging for the camera; my dad is resting his chin on my head, the still-stiff limbs of the uniform jutting awkwardly off his skinny arms like wings.
“Who doesn’t love a man in uniform?” my father roared, releasing me. He swooped in, grabbed my mother, swept her up in a kiss. She giggled and resisted, limply. He planted a big wet one right on her lips. I felt a hot flush of embarrassment, looked away.
“Daniel,” my mother protested. But her voice was smiling.
“This is it,” he said. “Deb, just you wait. After this paper, they’ll be lining up around the block to talk to me, they’ll be lining up around town. Just you wait.”
He took us out that night to Antonetti’s, still wearing the uniform. He doffed his navy blue cap and grandly asked the hostess for three, non-smoking. My mother giggled nervously as the girl walked away with menus, and my father boomed, “You’d think they’ve never seen a bus driver before!”
Service was slow that night, and the knife they brought my mother was dirty, but my parents sparkled at each other. My father pretended to read the menu upside-down and played footsie with my mother. He looked around the restaurant, trying to catch the eyes of the other diners. “Look at those people,” he said, punching me in the shoulder. “What do you think they’re looking at, huh? Must be your mother, right— they’re wondering what Julia Roberts is doing in Antonetti’s on a Tuesday.”
“Oh, Daniel,” my mother said to her Greek salad. I looked around. Families were bent over their own meals, or watching the small TV in the corner.
“I’ll bet you never thought a bus driver could land such a lovely wife,” my father said to our uncomfortable waitress, and laughed at his own daring.
My father cheerfully began to pull what he called “doubles”—double shifts, from his double life. He left warm, high-ceilinged professor’s homes, closing doors on eggplant tapenade and the clinking of silverware, and headed out into chilly nights for endless transit authority trainings. He explained to me that he changed clothes in the car, from suits to his driving uniform: at times in the transit building parking lot, sometimes at red lights. It became a game, to see how quickly he could shed his old life for the scratchy, blue-and-gray polyblend new. If he could change outfits completely before arriving at the training center, he got bonus points.
“We aren’t required to wear our uniforms to the trainings,” he confided, sitting on the edge of my bed in the dark. It was eleven at night and I had school the next day. “But if I’m going to do this job, I’m going to do it right. I’m going to do it all the way.”
“You’re the only one who wears your uniform?” I asked.
“You’ve got to show your dedication, Mitch,” he said, “if you want people to respect you.”
“But what about your articles?” I asked. “Don’t they know about them?”
He chuckled. “They don’t know about those,” he said. “That’s not the kind of work that those kind of people,” he paused, looking for the word. “Understand. No, appreciate.” He nodded. “That’s just not the kind of thing they appreciate down at the TTA.”
I watched the numbers on my alarm clock, breathless, not wanting him to go. Keeping him there was half a matter of wishing, half a matter of making absolutely no sound. I treasured each minute, held them to my chest, as though each were proof of something: the slow words passed from one to another in the dark, without regard for bedtime.
Eventually, he looked at the clock and whispered, “All right, sport, it’s getting late. I’ve got to let you get to sleep, so you can study hard and grow up to be a genius like your old dad.”
“One more story,” I begged. “What about the big man, did he get fired?” But he stood up, opened the hallway door.
“Good night, Mitch-o,” he whispered. “Sleep tight.”
But I didn’t sleep, not right away. I closed my eyes and drifted, imagining my dad sitting humbly in the back of a training session, learning about the right kinds of gas, highway grade. He never told me all of the details, but I’d seen his notebooks. Unlike the research for his dissertation, which he locked up neatly in his study, these scribblings spilled from his pockets and into unlikely places in the house. I found one on the end table beneath an ashtray, and spirited it away to my tree fort in the backyard. Safely tucked in the branches of a shifting elm, I read: “Video: train safety:
“Stopping distance for a train going 60 mph is half a mile. Human beings invisible at this distance. ‘Striking pedestrian a train driver’s worst nightmare’—obv.
“Surrounded by tired black women, weak-chinned men. The latter w/ eyes like faded denim, Bruce Springsteen, smell like Old Spice and the punch served at anger management meetings.
“People glaring at me taking notes. Insecurity? Note on work ethic discrepancy btw. social classes. I am probably least likely person in room to need to, but most likely to do it due to upbringing, value on education. Potential chapter? Consider.”
He was put on the graveyard shift following budget cutbacks in early June. Flush from the successful defense of his dissertation, my father hadn’t minded, had slapped the table. He was working on a new chapter, tried out the titles on me over breakfast: The Night Life. Graveyard Shift to Grave.
“They needed a tough young guy for the job,” he boomed. “Too bad they’ve just got me, right, Deb?”
My mother paled. “Every night?” she asked.
We were eating squash au gratin and beef bourguignon. The longer my father worked, the more elaborate my mother’s meals became, filling her empty evenings with Julia Child and Deborah Madison. I begged for boxed macaroni and cheese. On the afternoons she succumbed, she sat in front of the television for hours, anxiously flipping pages of magazines she didn’t read, starting whenever there was a sound at the door.
“Just Tuesdays through Sundays,” he said. “Professor by day, driver by night!” He tipped an imaginary hat, slipped into a lower register and stabbed a slice of beef. “Just doin’ my job, ma’am.”
“But you aren’t a professor,” my mother said quietly. My father’s fork went still.
“It’s just a matter of time,” he said, at last. “It’s normal to have a bit of a wait period. Especially in this economy.” He turned to me and made a face, waving a spear of asparagus. “What’s your mother’s big idea, cooking all this green stuff, huh, Mitch? Makes you miss pizza, huh?” He jabbed it into his mouth, made a show of chewing and swallowing. “I’m late,” he said, rising. “Gotta run.”
He kissed the top of my mother’s head. She caught his sleeve with her pinky.
“It’s just a matter of time,” he said, with finality. He went out the door, leaving the two of us, in the wake of him, stunned into an embarrassed silence.
April stretched into May, and May into an unseasonably hot June. Summer lay thick on our lives like a damp mat. I rode my bike to the pool sometimes, and went to a few birthday parties for boys from school, but mostly I stayed inside, seeking respite from the humid air in the glow of the television. On commercial breaks, I noticed the slow hollowing of our house: the breath it held, along with my mother and me, every time the phone rang, and the breath it kept holding every time my father called back, tracing the long and unfamiliar numbers with a superstitiously careful finger. He was exhausted when he came home but stayed up until 9 a.m. to call, bright-eyed and weary. He’d been aggressively making follow-ups, leaving messages—Hello, this is Daniel Parker, I just wanted to verify that you’d received my CV. I camped out in the kitchen at first, eager to celebrate with him when the news came: Berkeley or Princeton or Northwestern. But each time he nodded too much, the hope slowly draining from his face. He said too many thank-yous. Eventually I learned to be gone before he dropped the cradle gently in its receiver, and leaned his forehead against the wall with a sigh.
“It’s nothing to worry about,” he said blearily over dinner, half-dressed, finally awake after the eight-hour naps that swallowed his daylight hours. “That department is a bunch of blowhards. Besides, who wants to live in Wisconsin? All that cheese.”
I heard my parents arguing later upstairs, half-drunk glasses of garnet merlot still standing on the table. “We’ll be fine,” my father said. There was a pause, my mother’s response inaudible, and then, “I just got started. There’s seniority, Deb. It doesn’t work like that.” And then, loudly, “Well, I don’t see the point in explaining it to you if you can’t understand. Do you want me to keep trying? Do you?”
Pieces of my father began to disappear after that. Small things: the bounce from his step. The habit he had of tapping the yellow kitchen phone each time he walked by, absently, for luck. Increasingly, he stayed in his uniform after getting off-shift, dragging around the house for hours in the matching shirt and pants that were gradually conforming to his body. Some days, he didn’t change at all.
I looked for his notebooks, hoping to piece things together. But he’d begun to hide them carefully away after my mother pulled one out of the washing machine, a load of jeans and sweaters coated in the snowy remnants of my father’s notes.
It is only now, grown, with a wife and two girls of my own, that I begin to understand what was happening. Those long nights when my mother lay in her empty bed, frightened by noises; those empty evenings when I puttered Cyclops around my room, picking up and dropping off his friends at strategic points in his supersonic X-Jet; on those evenings, my father’s world was shrinking. The rejection calls were fewer now, options diminishing. The joke job became less of a joke. He took fewer notes. The life he thought he had built for himself was falling away piece by piece, like planks of wood from a rotten fence, leaving him exposed and defenseless in the gray, barren, vacant lot that he never thought would have anything to do with him.
In late June, he got a promotion. This is how he explained it to us, after sitting down to my mother’s chicken l’orange, the thin rejection envelopes from the final three academic journals cleared from the table and shunted on top of the microwave to make room for his plate.
He was being moved to day shifts, losing his two long, lazy suburban routes, he told us. He’d be driving the inner-city full time now.
“The Longview line, where they had me in March, that’s starter stuff,” he said. “It’s for inexperienced drivers. I mean, some people end up crawling the suburbs for years, people with bad records or bad work ethic. Like this one guy, Joe Romero, he’s been on the Crestfield route since 1993. He says it doesn’t bother him, but—”
“Do you get a pay raise?” my mother asked.
My father pushed back too quickly in his chair, slamming the table with his knee. The water jumped in my glass, ice cubes shivering.
“It’s not about the money, Deb,” he said. “It’s about respect, okay? It’s about—they’re recognizing that I’m—”
He pushed his plate away, stood up from the table. “Here I was expecting some congratulations from my family,” he snapped. “My goddamn loving family.”
“Congratulations, Dad,” I said. But my voice came out high and pale, and he was gone anyway, up the stairs to his study. I crept up later, leaving my mother with the dishes, and pressed my ear to the door. There was no sound. If it hadn’t been for the thin line of light, I wouldn’t have known he was in there at all.
We went to see him the next day at work. It was my mother’s way of making reparation. She brought him lunch, cold turkey and cranberry remoulade on thick slices of homemade bread. I helped her pack the bag. We tucked in oranges and Hershey’s Kisses, a small plastic dinosaur. She studied route maps and made calls, and at 11:58am, we were standing at the corner of Riverside and Cherokee, waiting for the #210. The air was already hot and beginning to shimmer. My mother mopped at the back of her neck as we waited, squinting into the sun.
My father’s eyes jumped to our faces as we boarded his bus, and then away. His face remained carefully neutral, chin high over his blue cotton collar.
“This is the express,” he told us.
I bounded up the steps. “Dad, it’s us!” I shouted. “We brought you lunch!” I thrust the bag into his lap while my mother fumbled with the fare. Her dollar bill was sweaty and rumpled. The machine refused it, again and again. My father watched, stone-faced. My mother flushed. There was a line forming.
“We came to see you at work,” she said. Her voice was tight, came out strangled. The dollar bill fluttered in her hands. My father shifted the paper bag off of his lap. “You should sit down,” he said at last.
My mother looked up at him. Wisps of hair had escaped her braid and were floating above her ears. The edges of her lips twitched like a frog.
“But we haven’t paid,” she said.
My father smiled then, broadly. “This one’s on me,” he said grandly and punched a button.
We rode around with him for the rest of the afternoon, bundled into the row by his seat, the one reserved for the elderly and the handicapped. The blue plastic benches were dingy and worn, choked by lunchtime commuters. My father’s spirits were high. He had always been a gracious host, and now he welcomed us to his world: This was the police station. This left light could take as long as five minutes to change from red to green, if you hit it at the wrong time of day.
We stopped at the corner of 1st and Neale, and my father expertly lowered the bus for a frail older woman, her white hair bundled into scarves. He spoke loudly to her, asked where she was going. She nodded absently, moving past us into the frigid air of the bus.
“You really do try to help people,” my mother said appreciatively.
My father’s back was straight.
“It doesn’t take much,” he said. “It’s all about making everyone’s day a little bit better. It’s not hard to do. Of course, it helps to understand where people are coming from.” We had stopped again, and my father shouted to my mother through the line of passengers slowly trundling down the aisle. “And you can bet my training doesn’t hurt there in the least. Oh, no. In fact, you could say it gives me an advantage.”
He waited for the last of the passengers to find a seat, and then carefully pulled away from the curb. His lips traced the words again: an advantage.
The city slid by outside the air-conditioned capsule of our bus, stopping and starting again as we did, unfolding. We were greeted by its hot blasts of air whenever my father opened his doors, jostled by its inhabitants. The people who lived here seemed sick with it, sick with the city: exhaust permanently caked into hair and coat pockets, faces lined with weariness, or closed. Nearly everyone was black or Latino, and did not look at my father when they boarded, sliding into the tired plastic seats.
I had ridden city buses before, but everything seemed blessed that day with special fascination: the light shimmering in the trees, the regularity of fire hydrants on the sidewalks. My father talked to my mother; he imitated the bus announcement (This is the #210 Express, with stops at—), and while she laughed, I floated away from them. My body, goosepimpling, sat still beside my mother’s on the seat, my mind crawling out into the nooks and crannies of the urban curbs, taking in the gritty wonder of my father’s strange world.
Which is how I spotted the girl, surging through the crowd at the crossing of 6th and Polk.
Later, for the police, I would try to reconstruct the scene. The pieces never quite added up; it seemed impossible that she moved so quickly. I saw a girl in a red T-shirt breaking from a small group of people. It was the movement that caught my eye, but I remember this in discrete, frozen moments:
The red cotton unfurling, the sudden explosion of hair catching the sun. My mother’s giggle floating by. The light turning green. The expression of absolute purpose on the girl’s round face as she launched herself in front of my father’s accelerating bus.
The terrible bump as we clipped her, and a wingless brown body spinning out into the air, and then a flat, splintering smash.
Then the screaming of brakes, and the screaming of passengers, and everything seeming to be both too dark and too bright to understand. A red car in the opposite lane, spinning away casually like a toy bumping into other toys, wrapping itself silently around a telephone pole. Stopping. Dark-faced bodies flooding through the doors like beads from a snapped necklace. A policeman shined a light in my face and asked me, again and again how many fingers there were, and all I could say was, It was like a bird. She flew out in front of us like a bird.
Read the rest of “The Exposed Nest” in apt‘s fifth print annual.
Kendra Fortmeyer is the fiction editor for Broad! magazine and a double Pushcart Prize nominee with an MFA in fiction from UT Austin. Her work has appeared in PANK, Smoking Glue Gun, NANO Fiction, Juked, Forge, Fiddleblack, Corium and elsewhere. You can find her on Twitter @kendraffe.