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The Story of My Father's Hands
"In that motel room I saw my father forever altered, with lasting wounds, like the scar on one of his hands—hands I’d studied and knew by heart."
When I was with my dad, I spent most of the time observing him, trying to get closer. It had been this way since my parents split when I was five. As little as I was, I could feel a distance between us, see it in my dad’s glassy eyes, hear it in his steadfast silences. I’d reach for his hand as we walked down the street. His hand would envelop mine with rough, calloused skin—black outside, brown inside, tiny hairs dotting his fingers, hard-won life lines on the surface of his palm and in the L-shape between his thumb and pointer. His heavy, handmade silver ring defied the knotty knuckle on his fourth finger. My hand always felt loose in his, like a waterless guppy, more cupped than held. I’d squeeze sometimes, trying to make him hold tighter.
Once when I was in third grade, after visiting my Nana in her little brown house on the big steep hill, we’d uncharacteristically gone to a nearby motel on the highway so my dad could rest before the four-hour drive home. The next morning, ahead of sunrise, I lay in a grown-up bed in a shadowy room. My dad had startled me awake, flicked on the lamp between the two double beds, and asked if I wanted the TV on. The dark curtains were drawn over the window facing the highway, the motel parking lot, and the swimming pool covered up for the cold season. I wondered if it was light out yet.
“Are there cartoons?” I mumbled, half asleep.
He clicked the knob a few times and found The Flintstones. “Okay?” he asked. I nodded.
“I’m gonna jump in the shower,” he said.
I nestled under the covers and tucked the bedspread under my chin. The Flintstones wasn’t my favorite, but I liked singing the theme song and I liked how everyone propelled their cars with their feet. The rush and hum of water running in the shower were drowned out by the dizzying cartoon sound effects. We were the only people I knew who still had a black and white TV at home, and this motel television was in glorious color. Plus it was much bigger than ours. There was a large color TV at my mother’s house, but she only let me watch on special occasions; at my dad’s, I could watch whenever I wanted. Sometimes I wished he would tell me to do something else more often, something with him.
I heard a strange and sudden pounding. I couldn’t tell where it was coming from. Maybe outside. I looked around the room and then back to The Flintstones. A second later I thought the walls were caving in. There was a bang, a reverberating thud, a rattling. Something crashed and crackled, a clash of clattering and foreign noises happening all at once, and there was a hammer deep in my chest. Then a grainy, muffled murmur. I sat up and froze. I listened for the white noise of the shower. Steam seeped out across the slate-gray carpet through the crack below the wooden bathroom door. The hollow TV din slipped into the ether. When my dad did not answer the first time I called his name, I began to panic.
As little as I was, I could feel a distance between us, see it in my dad’s glassy eyes, hear it in his steadfast silences. I’d reach for his hand as we walked down the street.
“Dad?” I tried again, hurling the word from behind my ribcage. Until he called back that second time, I thought I’d never see him again. “I’m okay,” he said, but nothing sounded right. He opened the bathroom door holding a towel in front of his waist and walked across the carpet with wet bare feet. Soft white mist curled around the room and I felt the heat under my nose and across my cheeks. The humidity dissipated a moment later, the room colder than a moment before. My dad stood next to the bed in front of the nightstand. Tiny dots of water dripped off the ends of his curly hair, expanded as they crawled down his temple, then soaked into his beard. Under the lamp’s light I saw his skin peeled raw in some places. There were layers bubbling up on his brawny forearm and on his elbow. Something had happened to his shoulders too; a maroon hue spread across his brown skin. Cadmium red blood stained the light blue towel. I caught his grimacing, sharp inhale. He looked at me and said, “I’m okay.” I knew he was staying calm because of me. He told me what number to dial for help. I sat up on my knees near the edge of the bed and held the receiver to his ear. I couldn’t close my wordless mouth.
My uncles lived near my Nana so they came quickly. They got the motel manager to come up just before we left for the hospital. He was a little bald man in suspenders who kept his head down and walked along the edges of the room as my uncles pointed at everything. He looked at the water and the glass and the blood on the bathroom floor. He glanced glacier-faced at my dad and left hardly saying a word.
In that motel room I saw my father forever altered, with lasting wounds, like the scar on one of his hands—hands I’d studied and knew by heart. I’d always clutched to my chest a half-conscious fear that something would happen to him, something he wouldn’t come back from, and after he was scalded, it grew. The fear was with me in the playground and at the grocery store. It sat beside me waiting for my dad to pick me up from school or from ice skating, or while I watched him play tennis or get gas or drive. And with the fear was a swelling awareness that bad things happened to Black people.
Eventually he took the bandages off and, on a day he had school and I didn’t, I sat behind my dad’s desk at the front of his classroom. The engraved metal sign on the door said MR. KEARSLEY: ART. There was so much to look at in his room. I studied a bulletin board on the wall above the desk. Overlapping school notices, pictures cut out of Art in America, Sharpied signs in my dad’s all-caps handwriting, the color wheel mounted on a square piece of cardboard, and a Reggie Jackson baseball card from a pack of gum that tasted like plastic.
There was a bang, a reverberating thud, a rattling. Something crashed and crackled, a clash of clattering and foreign noises happening all at once, and there was a hammer deep in my chest. Then a grainy, muffled murmur. I sat up and froze.
It was just us at first. He circled the room lifting the upside-down chairs off the long tables, placing them right side up on the linoleum floor, and neatly pushing them in. I was wondering what we should draw together when a shrill, unsettling bell rang through a tinny speaker over the door. Big kids filed in with bags and jackets and books stacked in their arms. A few of them said, “Mr. Kearsley, is that your daughter?” and I blushed. I wished it could stay just me and my dad. I wished the desk wasn’t right in front where everyone could see me. But also, I wished someone would ask me how old I was and maybe they’d want to know if I watched Square Pegs and Family Ties.
Class started. I watched my dad’s hands open drawers and cabinets I didn’t know, pinch a graphite pencil between two fingers, brush black charcoal off his pressed jeans. His hands rested authoritatively on his hip and rose into the air as he spoke with his Teacher Voice—meaningful pauses after elongating words like “okay”, “now”, and “so.” I watched his hands moving in a space unfamiliar to me, for a different audience. I’d seen my dad’s hands swirl long wooden paintbrushes in turpentine, sweep brazen strokes of shape and shadow across fresh canvas, squeeze crimson from wrung out plastic tubes and dip cobalt blue in titanium white on a storied palette. His hands held the 35 mm Minolta, Nikon, Leica, or Canon just so and slowly cocked the shutter with reverence. They tapped rubber tongs across glistening photo paper floating in developer, made pictures appear where there was nothing at all, like solving a mystery. His hands swooped forward when he talked about the way things are, shot up mid-air to explain how things should be. His kid hands made fists to fight the white boys who threw rocks at him every day on the way to school and back again. His hands made fists, too, around splintering handles on teetering wheelbarrows. They gripped chisels, pickaxes, and ice saws just like his father’s hands and his father’s father’s hands. Our bloodlined hands rigged and masoned, steered horse-driven carriages later replaced with lumbering trucks. They helped people, cared for people. They planted rose bushes and Japanese Maple trees in the woody soil of the earth at the little brown house on the big steep hill where my father was born and where Nana still lived.
The week Dad got burned came to an end. I didn’t want to leave him to go to my mother’s house, but it was her week and those were the rules. It wasn’t that I never got scared of something bad happening to my mother, it was just different. Gradually, I realized if it had been my mom trapped in the burning shower, the motel manager would have done something. If it had been her, he would have said he was sorry and he would have helped her because she was white too. The fear came from a different place. Once when she and I were at a restaurant an elderly white couple at the next table glared at me while hunched over their twin bowls of soup. The kind of glaring where people wait to make sure you see them doing it. They eventually summoned the server and asked to move to a table on the other side of the dining room where they could glare from a distance.
“Why did they move?” I asked my mother.
“Some people just don’t like children,” she said. She looked at the tablecloth and straightened her napkin. I thought, what did children ever do?
I remembered that incident sometime later when I was at the One-Hour Fotomat with my dad. He handed me money so I could pay for my pictures and I passed the bills to the lady at the counter. My dad told me to wait for the change so I held my hand open, but the lady dumped the coins on the counter in front of her. When we left, I asked my dad why she didn’t just put the money in my hand.
“Some people don’t like Black people,” he said.
We talked to a lawyer about the suddenly boiling water, the brutal knob that wouldn’t turn back, the shower door that jammed itself shut, the motel manager who couldn’t be bothered. The lawyer sat behind a glossy desk and wrote on a long pad of yellow-lined paper while my dad answered questions, sticking to the facts.
The lawyer looked at me. “This must have been really scary,” he said.
I bit my lip and smiled. I was shy, embarrassed that he was talking to me, but grateful to be seen. I said there were really bad cuts and burns on my dad’s shoulders and arms, and on his back and his sides, too. Third-degree burns, I said.
I wondered how much his students knew about him. I wondered if they ever noticed that his hand and his arms were a little stiff. Did they know the story of the day he got burned?
The lawyer asked to see the back of my dad’s hand, one of the places where he’d pulled out hot shards of crystalline glass. The singular lines branded in his skin somehow created a cohesive design. It seemed a little like magic to me. It was still healing, a slow-forming scar. I asked if it would ever go away. My dad laughed inwardly, and said that he didn’t think so, but he hoped so. He leaned forward in the chair next to mine, planted his palm on the desk, looked at me and winked. When he turned back I fixed my eyes on the lawyer who looked at the hand, then at the legal pad, then the hand, and back at the pad while he drew exactly what he saw, and exactly what I saw too.
When I was in my late twenties and my dad was in his early seventies, he stretched bigger, wider, broader canvases than ever before. His surfaces grew a sprawling topography for more clarifying shapes and bold depth of field. Figures in the foreground seemed to pop off the canvas with oversized, disproportionate hands. It wasn’t conscious at first. It started with the oil painting of his father—the first Black business owner in Croton-on-Hudson, New York—on one of many long days they’d worked together. In the towering image his father cut colossal blocks of ice they’d hoist on one shoulder to deliver all across town in a time before refrigerators were prevalent. A forest green pick-up truck sat in the background and in Grandpa’s amplified 3-D grip was a black iron chisel, a sentient sculpture, a kind of folk art. The handle was a thickset hollow oval fused to the top of a waist-high pole. A square blade extended out formidably from the other end, its wide serrated edge spearing down like a strip of teeth or a band of upside-down triangles. White and blue pigmented bricks of frozen water glistened and receded into the distance, trailing time. Twenty years later I realized that rows of pointy, jagged edges have shown up in my drawings and scribbles and in the flourishes of my handwriting ever since, and that the shape of the blade on the iron chisel resembles the scar on the back of my dad’s hand.
The day I sat in Dad’s classroom I had a book to read, Crayolas, and construction paper laid out in front of me on his desk, but I mostly listened to his baritone voice weave and slide across his classroom; the cool art teacher with the bushy, salt-and-pepper beard, ironed-creased bell-bottom Levi’s, slate-gray Wallabees that I loved. They had tan soles that looked like what gum erasers were made out of. I thought his students would be making things in class and I’d see if they were good at art. I thought I’d hear my dad talk to them about what direction the light was coming from and how grass doesn’t have to be green and the sky doesn’t have to be blue if those aren’t really the colors you see. But he had his students mounting and framing drawings they’d already made instead, and there was a lot of chattering and cutting up and my dad kept having to set them straight. He rarely scolded me for anything when I’d act up at home and I sometimes wished he would. I wondered how much his students knew about him. I wondered if they ever noticed that his hand and his arms were a little stiff. Did they know the story of the day he got burned? After that day I ate Flintstones Vitamins from the kitchen cupboard like they were candy and secretly checked on my dad every time he’d lie down for a nap. I’d tiptoe into his room to make sure he was breathing, look for the rise and fall of his chest, listen for snoring. Or I’d squint in the half-light of the doorframe, see his scarred elbow on the arm draped across his face and watch for an involuntary twitch of his hand.
I grabbed a burnt umber crayon with my tentative right hand and curved my left arm around my paper, so no one could see. Near the bottom corner I drew the fully formed glass-cut scar on my dad’s hand: the four sides of a square, with a row of vertical lines chiseling up from the top, like the way I’d draw rays of light shooting out from around the circle of the sun.
This essay was originally published in Catapult Magazine.
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