Nola tried to will herself back to sleep but it was no use, she had to pee. She dreaded asking to use the bathroom and tried to put off getting up as long as possible, but it only made her have to go worse. Maybe he was almost done getting ready? But as she lay in bed Nola could still hear her father intermittently walking back and forth from bathroom to bedroom, the old floorboards creaking under the thick rug with each muffled footstep. She knew she’d never make it.
“Daddy, I’m sorry, but can I please use the bathroom? I have to go really bad.”
“You’ll have to wait,” came the curt reply.
Nola sat on the end of her bed, trying to watch for when her father was done with the bathroom without looking like she was being pesky. She didn’t know if he would tell her it was ok at some point, or if he meant that she had to wait until he was completely done getting ready, but there was no way she would ask which way he meant it.
She began to wiggle and tried to take her mind off going. As she waited she counted the flowers on her bedspread. Then she counted the stripes on her rug. Next she counted the polka dots on her curtains. She was running out of things to count and rocking back and forth.
“Go ahead, just hurry it up.”
“Thanks Daddy, I’m sorry.”
Nola pulled down her panties and hiked up her nightgown, barely making it to sit down on the seat before she started to pee. She leaned forward and pushed, trying to hurry it up. When she was finished she didn’t wash her hands; she could do that in the kitchen.
Once downstairs Nola could still hear that same intermittent walking back and forth until finally the master bedroom door closed. The next sound would be her father’s footsteps on the stairs; he was coming.
As her father entered the kitchen Nola said, “Good morning.” There was no reply. Sometimes that meant something, sometimes it didn’t. Nola sat very still at the table, moving only just enough to quietly continue eating her cereal. She tried to be careful and not eat too loudly, not to slurp her juice or scrape the spoon against the cereal bowl. He hated that noise in particular.
On the counter by the stove she watched her mother line up three coffee cups while her father stood waiting. Kate filled each cup halfway so there’d be room for plenty of milk. This was her father’s only breakfast; he never ate in the morning, except for Sundays when he got a bagel downtown. He poured milk into the first two cups and drank one of them standing over the sink. Then he took the second cup and headed out the side door and through the breezeway into the garage. The third cup sat there alone and black on the counter, waiting for his return. Nola could see the steam rise in a misty cloud over the mug. Her father liked his coffee hot, it really had to be boiling so the milk wouldn’t turn it too cold.
Nola knew that her father was meticulously cleaning the windshield of his car with Windex and paper towels, just like he did every single day. Rain or shine he always started out with a clean window to look through on his short drive to work. Nola thought it was funny that he cleaned the windshield even if it was raining or snowing. When she asked him why he did it, since it would just get dirty again, he said that it still made a difference, he said, “dirt adds up.”
When her father came in from the garage he had his usual wad of dirty paper towels in one hand and the empty coffee cup in the other. He didn’t have a garbage pail in the garage; he didn’t want any trash near his car. He never left his cups lying around, either. Nola wasn’t allowed to drink anywhere in the house except the kitchen because he didn’t want any cups or glasses left lying around. Things lying around would get him really mad.
After the garage Graham went into his study to polish his boots. With the thin walls and the open door Nola could hear him almost as clearly as if he were in the room with her. She knew by the sounds what he was doing every step of the way.
When Nola was a smaller child and liked to follow her father around she would watch Graham shine his shoes nearly every morning. She was fascinated by the process, loved the sharp metrical sounds of the brush and antiseptic, oily smell of the polished leather. Later, as she got a little older, she would peek at him from the butler’s pantry instead, hoping he wouldn’t notice her watching. But now she just listened from the kitchen to the familiar sounds.
First, he got out his shoeshine kit from the bottom desk drawer. She could hear the bag unzip, hear the can of polish being opened and then the unmistakable noise of her father spitting onto the surface of the thick paste to thin it out. Then there was a muffled sort of quiet, so he must be spreading the dark polish onto his cowboy boots with a soft brush, working it in all the nooks and crannies, every inch covered, no spot missed. The silence was broken by the rhythm of a stiff bristle brush as it brushed back and forth, evenly stroking across all sides of the well-worn boots. A few more moments of silent buffing with a cloth and he’d be done.
Once her father came back into the kitchen he took the last cup of coffee and added the milk. While he stood drinking it over the sink again, Nola’s mother finally put the milk away.
With his back turned to anyone that might be in the room, Nola’s father stared out the window drinking the last of his morning coffee. The routine was almost over now. Nothing had been slammed, no indication he was mad for any reason. If he didn’t say anything, if he didn’t have any bones to pick with her or her mother, then that meant everything was okay.
That’s what her father always said if he wanted to tell her she had done something wrong, or if she hadn’t done something she was supposed to do. “Listen,” he’d start off, “ I have a bone to pick with you.” Sometimes he would say he had “a few bones to pick”, or even “a lot of bones,” when she’d messed up a bunch of stuff. He’d even have a bone to pick with both Nola and her mom sometimes, “I have a bone to pick with both of you.” That’s what he said if he was willing to set them straight about something.
But sometimes he wasn't willing to talk to them; he wouldn’t talk to them at all, not even to say hello or goodbye. Sometimes it didn’t mean anything but other times it was a warning sign, it meant he was really mad and they would have to guess, to try and figure out what they did wrong.
The way you'd know he was mad was he'd slam things. You weren’t sure if or when it was coming, so it was always kind of a surprise. He’d walk into the room with the same countenance he did every day, take that heavy pottery mug of coffee laden with milk calmly in his hand and when he’d drunk it all down he might suddenly slam it on the worn wooden counter, loud enough to startle but not hard enough to break it. He never broke it; though whenever that happened Nola thought this would be the time, this would be the time he went too far and broke the cup.
Other times he’d drink the coffee and place the cup down gentle as usual, only to slam the side door with all his might as he left to go to the garage, slam it so hard it shook the whole house. Or maybe he’d slam it shut when he came back in. He might kick the metal garbage can after throwing out the dirty paper towels, ostensibly because the lid stuck, though kicking didn’t do anything but dent it; there were dozens of small little divots around the perimeter of the can from Graham’s frustrated boot tips.
Sometimes nothing would happen until Graham left the house and he’d slam the front door so hard the grapevine wreath would go flying off or books would fall from the shelf in the next room. You just never knew. You never knew if everything was ok until he’d finally left for the day and nothing had been slammed. You never knew it was alright unless no bones had needed to be picked.
Nola had a dream once when she was very little that she took a huge pile of bones, scraps from Grandee’s roast chicken, and placed them on a platter in front of her father at the dinner table. She did it to please him, in the dream she thought it would make him happy.
six words: see ya soon - minor eye injury still needs healing