It was the day of the Doll and Pet parade when the escaped convict rang our doorbell. He had a dark beard, disheveled hair, and darting eyes. A real live psychopath on my doorstep.
I screamed and ran into my mom’s bedroom. She was already up, her racquetball racket raised menacingly. I followed close behind as she crept into the kitchen, certain she was risking her life and willing her back into the safety of the bedroom.
She paused when she saw the man’s dark silhouette in the doorway. A funny look crossed her face and a small, amused smile flickered on her lips. She lowered the racket.
“Oh honey,” she sighed brushing by me to open the door. “That’s just your dad.”
“Hey kiddo,” the serial killer said to me, reaching for the top of my head. I watched him suspiciously, evaluating his big beard and untucked flannel shirt and filling up with a new sort of horror.
“Will he go to the parade?” I whispered urgently to my mom’s back as she went to pour some coffee. If he truly wasn’t planning to hack our bodies into pieces, I couldn’t think of anything that would be worse than this man out in the sunlight where my peers could see him.
He had hitchhiked to Eau Claire from Michigan, we learned as he arranged himself in a relaxed “just chilling” position at the kitchen table, draping his arms over the back of the chair and leaning back arrogantly. You could tell he really was my dad because he was missing his left ring finger, some accident with a table saw before I was born.
Opening his bag, he pulled out a large parcel covered in an old plaid shirt. It made loud metallic clanging noises as he unwrapped it.
“Here you go, Kiddo.” He presented me with an old-fashioned gum machine. The kind that would have stood on a metal pole in front of your local grocery in the ‘60s. It was a heavy, boxy-shaped contraption that rotated and spit out whole packets of Wrigley’s for the bargain price of one nickel. Several packets of Big Red, Juicy Fruit and Double Mint had already been loaded into the machine. They shone like gemstones beneath the glass.
“Now you need some nickels,” he looked to my mother who sighed and reached into her L.L Bean Tote for her change purse. Seeing as my father had never paid child support, I can understand now why a clunky gum machine was hardly the most welcome of gifts, rather it was something my mom would have to supply with rolls of nickels and trays of gum when he left. But she went along with it anyway.
He inserted a nickel and we “oohed” and “ahhed” as the gum tumbled out of the slot with a few helpful smacks of his four-fingered hand. He turned to my mom.
“How are things?”
I went into my bedroom with my gum and tried to practice being in a Doublemint commercial. All of Wrigley’s gums had their own jingles. I knew them by heart -- Juicyfruit was “gonna move ya,” which worked well as a concept but was a bit too spastic and sporty for my taste while Big Red’s song included far too much kissing and handholding for me to be interested.
Doublemint was by far my favorite. Doublemint always featured sets of twins. As an only child I fantasized about having a twin. A twin would give me someone to play with, someone to boss around, which would be a comfort, especially in trying times such as these.
For now I solved the problem by doing my own actions twice in rapid succession. I turned slightly away from the mirror and looked coyly over my shoulder, then very quickly repeated the motion. Beaming manically, I flipped my hair, bending at the waist and jerking to an upright position, a move that is difficult to do twice in the space of four seconds.
Smiling brightly at the camera, I folded two pieces of gum into my mouth so fast that my jaw was sore and overflowing with so much spearmint saliva that I nearly choked when I sang, “Double-double your refreshment! Double-double your enjoy-oy-oy-ment!”
When I’d used up all five pieces, I decided the cats were uncomfortable with the stranger-in-the-house situation and needed comforting. I found them glowering and shedding under my mom’s bed. I lay on my back with them and slid under the bed with them, looking up through the rusting box spring.
“Remember Jay?” I heard the man who said he was my father say to my mom in the kitchen. “Well he used to play with the drummer from Lead Paint and now he wants someone to jam with so we’re going to start something new.”
That afternoon, I marched in the humid sunlight through downtown Eau Claire. I held up a sign that read, “Something Fishy on Water Street.” Something fishy indeed, I thought as I passed my dad who was standing on the side of the road talking intensely to my mom.
I pulled the wagon with my stuffed seals on it to the end of the parade route and waited with the other kids while they handed out prizes. I won third, and got a T-shirt, which I took reluctantly from a rotund man in a clown costume. Holding the limp, oversized trophy, my victory seemed tainted.
It wasn’t that I disliked my father. I just didn’t know what to make of him, but I didn't have a chance to decide, because the next day he packed up, hugging me, and then my mom for what seemed like an unnecessarily long time, and then just walked back out the door and down the road to the highway.
I felt sad for him for a moment. It was the way I always felt for seals on nature programs. There are killer whales out there, I thought inexplicably as I watched his wrinkled flannel back get smaller. And then things went back to normal.
Except for the gum machine. I had bragged about the machine to some neighborhood kids. “Only a nickel,” I had said, unwrapping several pieces of Juicy fruit and folding them into my mouth, adding, “It’s gonna move ya.”
They lined up in my bedroom for discount packets of gum and for several days my father’s gift meant I was the most popular kid on the block.