Friday, March 20, 2009

the hiding place

Before the solid door with a lock was installed, Nola used to spy on her father sometimes. She’d hide in her special spot in the butler's pantry, under the counter behind the gingham curtain, and listen to the sounds from his study trying to guess what he was doing. The clicking sounds of his fingers on the keyboard meant he was writing, the sound of pages turning meant he was reading. If she heard the sound of papers being shuffled and a pen scratching that meant he was grading papers.

Sometimes, if she was feeing brave, she would poke her head out from behind her curtained hiding spot and peek thru the broken slat on the bottom panel of the folding door to see if her guessing was correct. That folding door was replaced when Nola was about 5 or 6, but before that it was all that stood between Graham and the outside world beyond his inner sanctum. That’s what he called the study; he called it his 'inner sanctum". Once when Nola was visiting with her mother at a neighbor’s house she asked where their inner sanctum was, she had thought it was the actual name of that kind of room, she believed it to be a space everyone had in their home just like kitchens or bedrooms.

Now the thought of spying on him, of entering that inner sanctum and looking at his things, terrified her. The last time she had she was finally caught, and the punishment had been severe.

Nola had been home from school, sick with the tail end of a cold, and feeling better as well as bored and restless. Her mother had needed to run to the store and decided to leave her alone rather than take her out in the cold weather. She said she would only be gone a few minutes but it seemed a lot longer to Nola. She was playing in the butler’s pantry when she heard her father come in. She could tell it was him by the way he jingled the keys in his pocket. Nola knew he hated it when she played in there so she decided to hide until her mother got back. Besides, she had thought, he probably was just going to get something and go back to school; he never stayed long if he cae home during the day, only popped in for this or that.

Nola quickly scooted into her favorite hiding space under the counter just in time to feel the rush of air as her father walked thru to get to his study. He closed the flimsy slatted bi-fold doors and she could hear him walking around, drawers opening, papers being shuffled, maybe the mail being looked at and placed on the desk. Then there was the sound of the springs creaking on the old diner booth, her father must be sitting there, probably closing his eyes for a rest, she’d seen him do it before. After a few moments of relative quiet, though, she began to hear strange sounds. She couldn’t identify them; she had never heard noises like this before. The sounds were so strange that curiosity got the better of her. The springs were squeaking nonstop now and it sounded like he was bouncing on the seat. That didn’t seem like something he would do. Nola had to see for herself so she cautiously poked her head out of the curtain and crawled closer to the door, carefully peeking through the missing slat at the bottom.

It took her a minute to realize that what he was doing was rubbing his penis, very fast, very vigorously, so much so that he was, in fact, bouncing a little on the seat. As she focused and what she saw became clear to her, Nola felt kind of sick and a little scared. There was something very wrong with it! She had seen his penis before, once or twice as he came out of the bathroom his robe had been open a little and she’d seen it hanging down between his legs, flopping a little against his wrinkled, sagging testicles as he walked. She remembered it was small and darker than his regular skin, sort of pink like his lips or tongue. But now as he was squeezing it so roughly it looked dark purplish and kinda wet; it was a different shape, too, longer and bent kind of funny. As he rubbed and squeezed it there was a moist, slippery sound, it reminded her of when her mother shook the egg noodles in the colander to get all the water out, a slurpy sort of noise.

Her father seemed to be in pain, like he was straining for breath, like he was choked and couldn’t get the sounds out. Nola panicked for a moment, maybe he needed help, maybe she should go in, say something, ask if he was ok? But he was sitting up, his eyes were open, it seemed like he could get help if he needed to. Something told Nola that she shouldn’t go in. She was too afraid to move.

For a few seconds Nola watched, frozen, staring at his hand moving up and down over that strange, dark, glistening penis. But then something else caught her eye. She realized that her father was looking at something, he wasn’t watching his own penis, and he wasn’t staring off into space. He was looking at something, focused squarely on it, staring hard. Nola couldn’t see what it was from her vantage point, but she could tell he was looking at a particular spot, almost like he was watching TV but there wasn’t a TV in his study.

Suddenly her father let out a deep groan and she almost jumped. Quickly her gaze turned back to him. He now had a bunch of paper towels in his hand and he was covering over his penis with them. He seemed to be pushing down hard on it and Nola panicked a little again, maybe it was bleeding now, maybe he was trying to make it stop like her mother did when she cut herself badly, applying pressure to the wound? But an instant or two later she could see he was only wiping it, he was drying off his penis. It looked sort of floppy again and it didn’t have that same angry dark color anymore. Whatever it was it had gone away. Maybe that was why he was rubbing it so hard, maybe there was something wrong with it and that was how you made it better.

He stood up and pulled up his pants, walking out of Nola’s view to what she assumed was the garbage pail, to throw out the paper towels. Or maybe not, maybe he didn’t throw them out in the study anymore than he threw out the ones he cleaned his windshield with in the garage – he hated garbage around his things, so maybe…

Just as the thought came into her consciousness that he might throw the paper towels away in the kitchen and therefore be about to leave the room, the door opened and Nola’s father would have practically tripped over her if she hadn’t just a split second before scurried back into her hiding spot behind the gingham curtain under the shelf. She could hardly breath and her heart was pounding so hard she was sure it was loud enough for him to hear. She clasped one hand over her mouth and hugged her knees extra tightly to her body with the other arm, praying like crazy that she wouldn’t be discovered. Her blood was rushing in her ears and she couldn’t hear anything for a moment, then she jumped when the metal garbage pail lid closed with a clang in the kitchen. She’d been right, he did go into the kitchen to throw away those paper towels. Thank God she’d thought of it when she did, one more second and she would have been caught…unimaginable what would have happened.

Nola could hear noises in the kitchen, her father running water at the sink, the towel being removed from the squeaky rack, then replaced with another squeak. The fridge door opened and closed, the snap and fizzy sound of a cap being twisted off a bottle of soda. Or maybe it was beer? Then the basement door opened and she could hear Grahams footsteps as he went down the half flight, opened the side door and headed thru the breezeway, most certainly to the garage.

She was safe. Or so she thought.

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