Fiction by Cynthia Lynn Schneider
Unlike most children, Heather had not been naturally curious. She spent each day with her mother for the first four years of her life, unaware of any other possible reality. Her mother, Sandra, was protective to the point of absolute devotion. She would read to her daughter every night for at least an hour, and sometimes didn’t stop until Heather slipped into sleep––breath thickened, eyelids fluttering. Sandra prepared all of Heather’s meals and took her on day trips to museums and botanical gardens and theatrical productions. Of course, Heather encountered fathers—in the stories her mother read to her, when she saw unbroken families in public places. But she had never thought to ask why she had no father or, if she did, where he could be found. At least, not until she started school.
“My daddy’s a firefighter,” said the four-year-old girl next to her, swinging her legs beneath the desk. “What’s your daddy?”
Heather didn’t know. The question confused her. She offered the best information she had:
“My mommy takes care of sick people. She helps them get better.” Sandra was a nurse at the county hospital.
“Oh,” said the blonde girl. She picked at a zipper on her backpack. “But what about your daddy?”
Heather didn’t understand that the girl only asked to compare the two fathers’ jobs, to see which one sounded more interesting, to arrange a hierarchy. If she had, she would have made something up. He’d be a chef, a race car driver, a movie star, a king. Instead, she told what she thought was the truth.
“I don’t have a daddy,” Heather said.
“Yes, you do.” The girl sat up straight, stopped swinging her legs. She knew something Heather didn’t. “Everyone has one.”
That day, after Heather got off the school bus and suffered through three hours with her teenage babysitter, she asked her mother the same question she’d been asked.
“Mommy, what’s my daddy?”
Her mother––keys in hand, still wearing teal scrubs––flinched. She smiled, but it didn’t look the same as it usually did. The corners of her mouth spread wide like they did when she was posing for a picture.
“What do you mean?” she asked.
“A girl at school told me her daddy is a firefighter, and I said I don’t have a daddy and she said everyone has a daddy, so what’s mine?” She expected her mother to give her the answer as freely as she gave her most things she asked for.
“Well, honey, I don’t know.” And, after her daughter’s tiny mouth frowned in disappointment. “But I know that he used to be a wrestler. He was on the wrestling team when he was in high school.” She smiled weakly at the memory. “He called it rassling.”
Heather beamed. She didn’t know what wrestling was, but she didn’t need to. She had something she could say to the girl at school or anyone else who might ever ask. She kept repeating My daddy was a wrestler in her head, but soon the phrase melted into a shorter mantra: My daddy.
Later, after her mother closed the picture book, kissed her forehead, pulled the string to turn off the lamp, and shut the door, Heather was almost asleep. She heard a small noise, like the sound of kibble hitting hardwood when their cat would drop pieces between bites, but it was so quiet she didn’t stir. After a few seconds, the lamp on her nightstand illuminated the room and her eyes flashed open at the light. She scanned the room for Sandra, thinking her mother had come back in the room and turned on the light, but she wasn’t there; only the shadows thrown against the walls from her furniture and toys. When she looked over at the lamp, she saw a puzzle piece lying on the nightstand next to its base. She picked up the piece and turned it––cardboard on one side and glossy color on the other––in both hands, entranced. With one hand, she let the perfect corner’s ninety-degree angle dip into the thumbprint on the other. This piece was smaller than the ones she’d seen in dentist office waiting rooms and her preschool classroom, and it was less vibrant. Mostly gray with only a sliver of black. Heather opened the nightstand drawer, reached her hand in until she felt its wooden backing, and dropped the piece in.
For a few days, the puzzle piece meant nothing more to Heather than other small objects she collected and hid. Sandra, unfortunately, for the single mother of a young child, had an intolerance for clutter. Heather tucked all of her little treasures––an extra coat button wrapped in clear plastic, a light blue popsicle stick, a lost earring found on the sidewalk––deep inside her nightstand drawer. The piece was just another part of her assortment.
On Friday nights, Heather and her mother rewarded themselves for getting through another week by watching a movie together. This week’s film featured a family of cartoon penguins.
“What do you think, do we need more popcorn?” Sandra asked.
Heather grinned, nodded without looking away from the screen. She was mesmerized. Sandra took the shared bowl into the kitchen without pausing the movie.
When the father penguin onscreen mentioned that orange was his favorite color, Heather, inspired, yelled to the kitchen. “What’s my daddy’s favorite color?”
She heard the sound of hollow plastic against tile; the red popcorn bowl falling to the floor. And then, two separate porcelain bowls set on the counter. Sandra brought them to the living room, overflowing with popcorn, and handed one to Heather.
“Thanks, Mommy.” She waited for her mother to answer. When she didn’t, Heather asked again. Sandra cleared her throat and covered it with a surprised laugh.
“I think I remember him saying he liked every color. So, I guess you could say his favorite was the rainbow,” she said.
“Wow,” Heather whispered. She didn’t know you could break that rule, could have every favorite color. “Does my daddy like movies too? What’s his favorite?”
Sandra uncrossed her legs and re-crossed with the other. “Um, yes,” she said, “He does like movies. He watched one called Pulp Fiction over and over again.” Sandra grabbed the remote and turned the volume up a few notches. “Watch, you’re missing it.”
When her mother read to her that night, Heather didn’t ask why the voices she used for the different characters sounded less animated than usual, or why she stopped reading after only one book. She noticed these things and would feel the shame of their memory for years, but she didn’t mind them much at the time. Nothing could pry her focus away from what she had learned about her father, the wrestler, the rulebreaker, the movie-lover. After her mother had left, and the new puzzle pieces, two edges, had dropped onto her nightstand, her mind was too busy to sleep.
By the time she reached middle school, Heather had found and hidden ninety-three puzzle pieces. She no longer tucked them into her nightstand drawer; instead, every time one appeared, she would inch the nightstand away from the wall and glue the piece in place on its painted white wood. It wasn’t hard to fit them together even without knowing what image they were supposed to reveal. She couldn’t bring herself to hope that it could be a portrait of her father for fear that, if she were wrong, she wouldn’t be able to cope. Though, the pieces she had gotten showed what looked like tan skin peeking out from underneath the sleeves of a t-shirt in the bottom corners. Each new piece connected where the last left off, creating a border first and then winding into the center. A hypnotic swirl.
When her fifth-grade class went over their Punnett square unit, she was able to ask her mother the color of her father’s eyes without guilt. It was, of course, for homework. Sandra didn’t tell her daughter that her eyes were the exact shade of her father’s, but Heather knew as soon as she said “brown.” From then on, Heather didn’t wish she had eyes like her mother’s, so blue in comparison to her own dull brown irises that she used to wonder if anything in the world was fair. She had a living piece of him. And then, on her nightstand, a cardboard piece.
The next year, when she joined the Paducah Junior High girls’ tennis team along with all of her friends, the coach required a parental release form with medical records in case any of the twelve-year-olds took a ball to the head or rolled an ankle. She prayed to the gods of all the major world religions––the focus of her social studies class at the time––that her mother would be too busy or tired or overwhelmed from work that she would just hand her the forms to turn in. But no god could make Sandra that careless.
Instead, Heather watched the documents, tucked tightly into a manilla folder, travel directly from her mother’s hands to Coach Bukowski’s. The coach, in a purple, sleeveless polo shirt with a sharply creased collar, and with no sense of what was at stake, introduced herself to Sandra by talking with her hands.
Heather heard her mother respond with, “Hi, I’m Sandra, Heather’s mom,” but ignored the rest of their small talk. Her eyes focused intently on the folder in Coach Bukowski’s hand.
Abandoning all of those wasted prayers, Heather tried to will the folder open with the coach’s gestures. When, for a second, the upper right corner parted and she was able to see an unfamiliar birthdate, she vowed from then on never to pray unless it was to herself. Unlike most pre-teen girls, she realized how powerful she could be. She knew she would be rewarded with another puzzle piece on her nightstand later. She carved the date, written in her mother’s impatient scrawl, into her mind the entire practice, never wanting to forget them.
“Lydia cried in our health class today,” Heather said, sawing into a stuffed bell pepper.
“What happened this time?” Sandra asked, eager as an invested reality TV fan. Heather had noticed lately that her mother had a habit of mentioning her fear that, eventually, she would stop talking about her days at school without prompting. So, Heather made an effort to please her mother, providing her with pieces of middle school lore to relish.
“Well, we’re learning about addictions,” she said, “and Mr. Donovan said there’s a higher chance you’ll have an addiction if someone in your family does.” She took a bite of her dinner.
Sandra’s hands folded in front of her plate. “So, someone in Lydia’s family has an addiction,” she said. There was no trailing up in her voice at the end, no coiling around a question mark.
“Yeah, she told Josie and me that her aunt got really drunk last Christmas and started yelling at everyone about politics and after she left her mom came into her room and sat on the end of her bed and told her that her aunt’s an alcoholic. And then she talked to Lydia for an hour about how drinking a little bit is fine once you’re old enough but not at parties in high school and never anything a boy hands you.” She took a drink, another bite of her pepper, and went on without swallowing. “And then her mom registered her for a youth group weekend retreat in Louisville and the people at the church camp talked about how drinking is sinful and told everyone to memorize some Bible verse about not drinking wine. Lydia still knows it word for word, but I can’t remember.” She paused, furrowed her brow, straining to remember the exact words her friend had said only a few hours before.
“It’s OK, I think I get the gist. What happened next?”
“So, she started crying because she thinks she’ll become an alcoholic because her aunt is, and then she’ll go to hell. Josie and I told her that probably isn’t true, to try to make her feel better, but she wouldn’t stop crying so Mr. Donovan sent her to the nurse, and she called her mom and left school early.” Finished with her anecdote, she directed her full attention to her plate. Sandra smoothed the napkin in her lap and crossed one ankle over the other.
“Well,” she said, “I hope she’s all right now. Maybe you should check on her.”
“Good idea,” Heather said, tugging her phone from the pocket of her jeans.
Heather stopped her movement when she felt Sandra lay a delicate hand on her arm. “And honey, Mr. Donovan is right. Addictions can be hereditary.” The change in her mother’s tone was so abrupt Heather didn’t know how to respond.
“Yeah, Mom, I know that’s true. I just don’t think Lydia will go to hell for drinking,” she laughed. When she saw that her mother wasn’t laughing along with her, she stopped.
Sandra took a breath, held it for a few seconds, and released it with a sigh. “Heather, this is serious. There are some things you could be at risk for that you should know about.”
“Mom, I pay attention in school. I know alcohol can be bad for you and addictions are dangerous. I’m not stupid.”
“It’s not that, honey.” Sandra enveloped her daughter’s hands in her own. “It’s that your father is an alcoholic.” She said the words quickly, spat them into the suffocating air of their dining room. Her eyes, urgent and unblinking, bore into Heather.
“OK,” she said. She slipped the phone back into her pocket, deciding not to talk with anyone about drinking any more for at least the rest of the night.
“He’s always had issues, but it’s not all his fault. He had a hard childhood.” She lifted a hand to fix her hair, and Heather saw that it was shaking. Unsure of what her mother was trying to tell her and what she was supposed to say back to her, she said nothing at all. Sandra straightened her spine, plastered a smile onto her face that ran parallel to the string of pearls around her neck.
“Well, it looks like I have some dishes to do,” she said, taking Heather’s empty plate and her own to the kitchen. Heather couldn’t tell if her mother had taken more than one bite.
Later, after an hour of scrolling through articles on alcoholism while lying in bed, she turned off her lamp and rolled onto her side. When the lamp turned back on, she reached for the string and yanked it off again. The sound of vibrations came from the nightstand and she guessed someone was calling her. She threw an arm over to pick up her phone and felt the piece she had been ignoring buzzing underneath her fingertips.
“Fine,” she whispered, pulling the lamp string. She got out of bed, took the glue bottle from her desk drawer, moved the nightstand out, and glued the piece into place.
At sixteen, Heather had one hundred and thirty-six pieces glued to the back of her nightstand. She was consumed. Often, when she pretended to be doing homework, she would slide the nightstand out and sit with her back against the wall. She stared at the puzzle until her eyes blurred out of focus, trying to conjure a face in the middle. The pieces she had earned so far spiraled into the center, waiting for a face to fill the empty space. She looked into the vortex of background and shoulders and white t-shirt and tried to imagine a face like her own, but older and male, looking back at her.
On most weekend nights, she could be found in the backseat of a Corolla or an Accord or whatever else had been passed down to a boy at school from an older cousin. She logged hours in those backseats, but she never agreed to becoming anyone’s girlfriend. When she should have been thinking about the way their breath felt against her neck, their hands on her thighs or the small of her back, she only imagined what it would be like to introduce them to her parents. Mom, this is X; X, this is my mom. She pictured her mother getting ready for him to come over––rolling her hair into hot curlers, baking something from scratch. Then, Heather would take him upstairs to her room, not leading him by the hand in order to avoid insinuating anything to her mother. She would move the nightstand from the wall, turn the back toward him. And this is my jigsaw father, she would say. Only, she wouldn’t. She would never. Unlike most teenage girls, she couldn’t even find solace in daydreams.
The boys in the cars, of course, either didn’t notice or didn’t care that her mind was so preoccupied, as long as her body was there.
Heather heard the mechanical whir of the garage door lifting, and she braced herself. Sandra had to pick up an extra shift at the hospital to cover for a friend, so she’d missed Heather’s tennis match.
“How’d it go?” Sandra asked before she was even through the door. When she saw Heather holding a bag of frozen broccoli to her left cheek, her eyes narrowed. “Who did this to you?”
“Sarah Anderson’s backhand approach shot.” She and Sarah, a senior from another local high school, had been rivals for years. They were each vying for the title of Paducah’s top female tennis player. “It’s not that bad and it doesn’t even hurt anymore, I’m fine.”
The next morning, when Heather was about to leave for school, her mother stopped her. She brought her makeup bag to the kitchen island and started taking out concealers, foundations, correctors––anything that would cover up the broken veins purpling her daughter’s face.
“Mom, I need to leave, I’m going to be late.”
“I’m not letting you walk into school looking like this.” She shook the bottles of nude liquid and layered them on Heather; an artist and her canvas. It took her less than five minutes to restore her complexion.
“Oh my god, Mom, how’d you learn how to do this? And why didn’t I have you do it for Homecoming?” Heather asked, looking in the mirror. The corners of Sandra’s mouth twitched. She looked through her daughter like a sheer white curtain.
“I’ve had lots of practice,” she said.
Heather tossed her backpack on her bed when she got home from school and went downstairs for a glass of water. When she came back to her room and closed the door, she heard another puzzle piece landing on the nightstand.
She thought the impact from the tennis ball must have given her a concussion. Her mother wasn’t home from work yet, and she had only seen her for a few minutes that morning. If she had revealed something new about her father, Heather would have remembered it. No, the last time she got a new piece of him was two months before. She took the puzzle piece from the nightstand into her hands, silently begging it to tell her why it was there. When she recreated the conversation with her mother from that morning, she was hit with the truth.
With shaking breath, she pulled the pink toolbox––a Christmas gift from her mother, years before––out from under her bed. She unlatched the lid and swung it back on its hinges, opening to all of the things that were meant for repairing, all of the things she could use to destroy. She settled on a flathead screwdriver. Her hands forced the nightstand away from the wall, and, clutching the handle of the screwdriver, she scraped off every piece. She had been so close to seeing his face; had all of his neck and parts of a jawline. For once, she was grateful that she didn’t have more.
Once they all gathered on the floor around where Heather sat, furious, her knees sore under all of her pressure, she took an old grocery bag from under the kitchen sink and threw them all in. Double knotted the handles. She took it out to her car, drove ten minutes to the closest gas station, and tossed it in the dumpster behind the building.
“Do you want anything from the dining hall? I can steal you an apple or something,” Heather’s roommate said.
“Can you make it two?”
“I’ll see what I can do.” She shot a two-finger salute and pulled the door closed behind her.
Heather had only been in Boston a month, but her routine felt established. She got along with her roommate, Claire, a zoology major from San Francisco. She learned to do her laundry on Saturday nights when she could trust nobody else would be using the communal machines, too busy flocking to the frat houses. On Sunday mornings, she went downtown to the farmer’s market. She never bought anything––the dorm kitchens were too small and constantly in use––but it made her feel like she actually lived there. There were yoga classes at the campus gym on Wednesday and Friday mornings, which she found to be a relaxing alternative to exercise after so many years of fast-paced tennis. And on Thursday evenings, she called Sandra for an hour.
Of course, there were times they talked outside of that designated hour each week—when her mother forgot their Netflix password or Heather had to change the pharmacy for her birth control prescription. When her phone rang on that Monday afternoon and Heather saw it was her mother calling, she thought it would be another two-minute question.
“Hey, Mom. What’s up?”
Heather waited for her mother to reply. “Honey,” her voice wavered, “I have some news.”
“OK,” she said, closing her eyes. She’s going to tell me she found a lump. The doctors think it’s stage four. She told herself this was what happens when an only child goes to college out of state.
“A man named Charles Farrell died this morning of a heart attack,” Sandra said. And before Heather could ask what that meant, she said, “He was your father.”
She watched the remaining pieces, the face she had been trying to formulate in her mind for fourteen years, form a pile on her desk. She never knew the solution would be this easy; all he needed to do was die.
“Heather, I’m so sorry I kept him from you.” By then, Sandra was openly sobbing. “He wasn’t all bad, but I never even gave you the chance to find that out, and now you’ll never get to.”
Heather had nothing to say, and for some reason, she just wasn’t able to believe her mother’s excuses for him.
“You might get some calls.”
“What kind of calls?”
“From a lawyer or an insurance company.”
“Oh,” Heather said
“I want you to add me into the call if you do. You remember how to do that, right?”
“Yes, Mom, I remember. Thanks for letting me know. Um, I need to submit this assignment in an hour, so I have to let you go.” She closed her laptop. “Bye, love you.”
She started assembling the pieces that had rattled onto the desk, her hands steadier than she thought they would be. She remembered the way she used to be able to imagine him, to believe that her father could have been anything other than what he was.
She aligned the notches of the last piece and snapped it into place, forming an oval that contained only a face. Her own eyes, brown and endless, stared up at her from the desk. She wondered if they changed when he was in a rage. If they flickered like a candle being blown out before he raised his arm.
Besides the eyes, Heather bore no resemblance to him. His features were angular and unforgiving. There was none of the soft curvature of Sandra’s or, consequently, hers. When she looked at his mouth, twisted into a smile, she could only imagine what it looked like screaming. She thought she saw it move for a second, form a “You’re worthless” to hurl at her mother. Her mother who, despite everything, defended him.
She grabbed the pieces into fists, crumpling his portrait the way a child grabs handfuls of sand, opened the window on the opposite wall of her dorm, and threw them out. And there he was, as unknown to her as he had ever been.