Fiction by Whitney Collins
Daddy-o, the optimist, always came to town in his fringed vest and yellow van for the months that ended in b-e-r.
“I’m like a summer oyster,” he’d say. “Can’t nobody keep me down.”
He’d show up behind the chain-link fence of W. G. Harding Middle School, a snagged autumn leaf clinging hopeful until Mabel looked his way, then he’d smile wide, teeth as white as bathroom tile against his Pensacola brown, and offer his daughter a little something for her time: a leather necklace greasy with patchouli, a temporary tattoo of a mermaid, a stolen red lipstick that insinuated Mabel was old enough to do what Janet Yuri did to Jimmy Overlay in the wide, shady mouth of the drainage pipe.
“Well aren’t you a bloomin’ daisy?” he’d sigh. “Looks like I shoulda brung a stick instead. To keep the boys away.”
And every fall, Mabel would play deaf to this, and offer up a silent prayer of thanks that a palm reader in a low-cut blouse had seen divorce between Daddy-o’s thumb and forefinger when Mabel was only nine.
When Mabel moved seven miles over to Harrison High, she hoped Daddy-o would miss a beat. But on her first Monday of tenth grade at 3:30 sharp, she found him leaning against a bike rack with a dry hibiscus and a smile cracked white with remnants of Florida zinc.
“Guess who’s coming to dinner?”
Mabel said nothing. Last time he’d been in town, alongside a banded stack of his Can Do! pamphlets, she’d found a Bowie knife in his glove compartment. She’d also found an old photograph of her mother graffitied with a felt-tip mustache. She hadn’t been sure the duo was connected, but it did give her reason enough not to sit across from him in a restaurant.
“I already ate,” Mabel finally said.
“Well, hot dog,” Daddy-o beamed. “Let’s go for dessert.”
At the Dairy Queen, Mabel refused a soft serve cone. She knew letting Daddy-o treat her to something would make her feel beholden. She might even break down and confess that she sometimes imagined meteorologist Brent Westerly as her new dad, a solid man who ate t-bones and made her mother forget how much she liked drinking. A man who paid taxes and had a set of encyclopedias and a pilot’s license. A man who took Mabel flying over the countryside on the weekends, much to the jealousy of Janet Yuri. Mabel watched her father pay for a cone of his own by digging into a beaded satchel and producing a proud palmful of dimes.
“Milk does a body good,” her father insisted. “You’re missing out Maybe Baby.”
Mabel went to stand at the old jukebox where she watched the shaky metal arm reach out for 45s the same way her mother reached out for her after one too many wine coolers.
“Is he still so inexcusably happy? Is everything still so peachy-goddamned-keen for him?” her mother would slur. “Jesus. You’d never know he’d had the accident. You could bury the bastard in manure and he’d shovel his way out, grinning that crap-eating grin of his, looking for a unicorn.”
“Bite?” Daddy-o asked, offering his cone.
“I don’t think so.” Mabel wrinkled her nose, then quoted her mother. “Not from a man who can’t tell the difference between baby shit and butterscotch.”
Daddy-o let loose with an amused hoot. “Now that…” he began.
“Oh, shut up.” Mabel slumped down in the booth and watched her father’s reflection in the stainless napkin dispenser. “Just shut up.”
She waited for his face to fall, for Daddy-o’s optimism to give way to defeat. But “can do!” was all he said, and he pulled an imaginary zipper across his mouth in the shape of a permanent smile.
During his annual backward migration from the panhandle to the Ohio Valley, Daddy-o’s first choice in accommodations was the Happy Thicket Motor Lodge. He liked the neon sign with the spotted fawn, how the animal jumped a smiling log in three robotic flashes. He liked the brown canvas bedspreads, the tiny lobby that sold smoked almonds. But he especially liked the word Happy before the word Thicket.
“I tell you what’d be a laugh and a half, Maybe. Is if the owners of this here place had sense enough to screw a red bulb into Bambi there’s nose come Yuletide.” He squirted cheese from a can onto a Triscuit. “What all would that set them back? Ninety-nine cents and three minutes on a step ladder?”
Mabel noticed her father’s hand had assumed a quiver in the past eight months—a sporadic jerking not unlike the buzzing yellow NO beside the sign’s serene green VACANCY—and for a moment she felt compelled to entertain him. To tell him about biology class and how, last year, Peter Sawgrass had put the tiny snout of a dissected fetal pig inside his left nostril. Or how junior Dawn Beretti had lost the tip of her tongue at a slumber party when dared to lick peanut butter from a mousetrap. Or how, just today, she’d seen a bunch of pills in the girls’ locker room toilet giving off strands of purple dye like Easter egg tablets.
“What do you think is more dramatic?” Janet Yuri had whispered to Mabel in English class. “Killing yourself or killing someone else?”
Mabel had shrugged, not out of ambivalence, but out of dumb wonder Janet would ask her opinion. She’d never worked a boy’s button fly or known the bitter taste of sixteen aspirins on her tongue. She didn’t staple her skirt hem three inches higher on the school bus or hide marijuana joints in her knee socks.
“I think both,” Janet had mused. “A scorned lover and then yourself.”
At the time, Mabel had silently agreed to disagree, but now, as she watched Daddy-o eating crackers through a smile, whose trembling hand remembered something he refused to, Mabel thought Janet was probably right. A person should have big reasons for dying. And unlike Daddy-o, big reasons for living.
Daddy-o squirted cheese on a cracker and held it out for Mabel. Two dots for eyes and big cheesy smile. Mabel turned the cracker upside down so it looked like two eyes under a frowning forehead, then she threw it into the motel trashcan. She no longer felt compelled to entertain him. He already was and for no good reason.
“I find it works best like this,” Daddy-o said on Wednesday. He stretched out as long as he could in the back of the yellow van, then folded his hands corpselike across his chest and closed his eyes. “I start with my toenails.”
Mabel stared up at the van’s sueded ceiling where Daddy-o had tacked a postcard of Tahiti, and a starry map of the universe, and a bumper sticker that said: I Brake For Butterflies. She wiggled her toes. Janet Yuri had passed her a note in English class with four, scribbled ballpoint drawings and the words: Pick One.
“I think of coconuts and waterfalls,” Daddy-o murmured. “I imagine a place where the lion lays down with lamb.”
Mabel had taken her time to decide. There’d been a stick figure hanging from a noose; a stick figure jumping off a skyscraper; a stick figure with red ballpoint ink spraying dramatically from its wrists; and finally, a stick figure lying next to a bottle of tiny black dots.
“Sleeping pills,” Janet had whispered.
In the background, Daddy-o took a conscious inhalation. “Hey diddle diddle, the cat and the fiddle.” His exhale sounded like a long, exaggerated sigh of relief. “The cow jumped over the moon.”
Mabel had taken Janet’s fate into her own hands. While the class read aloud from Shakespeare, she drew a fifth option: A stick figure being hit by an asteroid. Ha! Mabel had scrawled the bottom after circling the scenario. Ha! Ha! Ha!
Janet hadn’t seen the humor. For the remainder of English class she stared straight ahead, and when the bell finally rang, she dropped a note on Mabel’s desk before storming into the hall.
It must be nice, it said, to have so much to joke about.
Mabel looked over at her father. There was that smile. That stubborn arc of idiocy. “Why did you draw a mustache on that picture of Mom?” Mabel asked suddenly. “Why do you keep a knife around?”
Daddy-o didn’t open his eyes and he didn’t stop smiling. “I thought if I made your mother look ugly I wouldn’t miss her so much.”
Mabel didn’t buy it. “And the knife?”
This time Daddy-o opened his eyes and raised up on his elbow and his smile softened to a grin. “Remember this, Mabel. The happier you are, the more danger you’re in. People fear goodness.”
Mabel did buy this. She saw every day that misery loved company.
Daddy-o laid back down and closed his eyes and his smile returned less forcefully. “The little dog laughed to see such sport,” he whispered. “And the dish ran away with the spoon.”
When Daddy-o wasn’t cleaning toilets for chump change, he was walking the streets with his seventy-five-cent Can Do! pamphlets, preaching and teaching to those willing to listen to his concocted brand of salvation. It was a little bit Norman Vincent Peale, a little bit John Lennon. It involved thinking positive and eight tracks of sitar music, incessant smiling and zoning out. Daddy-o called it a sunny outlook, an “attitude of gratitude.” Her mother called it plain and simple denial. The proprietor of the Happy Thicket Motor Lodge called it nuts.
“That ole man a-yours,” he said to Mabel in the parking lot. “He ain’t right in the head. If I find drugs in his room, you can bet your ass I’ll call the authorities.”
Mabel stared. “Did you say something about my ass? ‘Cause if you did, it’ll be me on the phone.”
“Well, well,” the owner shook his head. “Someone sure don’t take after her daddy.”
“And it’s not drugs.” Mabel said. “It’s optimism.”
“I say it’s drugs,” said the man.
“I say drop dead,” said Mabel.
Janet Yuri cornered Mabel in the girl’s bathroom at morning break on Thursday. “Well, if it isn’t Little Miss Sunshine,” Janet said. “Seen any asteroids lately?”
Mabel smiled, then fast decided against it. “I’m no sunshine.”
Janet rolled her eyes. “Oh, sweetheart. You’re as dark as a May day. I bet the worst thing to happen to you is a B. B-plus? Oh, sorry. A-minus.”
Mabel thought of her father. How after the accident she and her mother had gone to visit him in the hospital. How her father had smiled through the bandages, how his swollen purple mouth could barely open for the straw that Mabel held to it. How he’d tried to whisper a knock-knock joke, but didn’t have the strength to get past the second “knock.” “You know, Janet,” Mabel heard herself say. “Some people can’t be broken.”
Janet leaned in close to Mabel as if she might kiss her. “Oh yeah?” she said. “Like who?”
“My dad,” Mabel said. “He’s never down.”
“Then he’s a liar,” Janet whispered, leaning in to unbutton the top button of Mabel’s blouse. “Just like you.”
That day after school, Daddy-o drove Mabel way out in the country to a fishing pond. He paid a man in a peeling shack four dollars, before backing the van right up to the water’s edge and opening the rear doors so it looked like the two of them were floating at sea. Daddy-o sat on a tattered pink cushion in the back of the van and folded his legs underneath him and Mabel did the same.
“We’re not fishing for fish today, Maybe Baby,” Daddy smiled. “We’re fishing for enlightenment.”
“Hmph,” Mabel said. “Looks like someone’s out four bucks.”
At that, Daddy-o laughed and laughed until his cheeks shone with tears. Mabel watched his joy with secret distrust and sad delight. The scar that ran along his jawline, as raised and shiny as a nightcrawler, was unaffected by Daddy-o’s glee, unlike the three men who’d jumped him outside the bowling lanes, where he whistled while he worked as a janitor. They’d cracked him across the face with a baseball bat, because, as Mabel had heard her mother tell a neighbor: “He owed them thirty dollars for weed, but what they really wanted was to beat the smile off his face.”
At last, Daddy-o stopped his cackling and grew as serious as he knew how. He closed his eyes and placed his hands palms up on his knees. “Some people say ‘Om,’” he said, “But I say ‘Home.’” And with that he breathed in deep and breathed out HOME and when Mabel saw Daddy-o forget she was there, she copied him, breathing HOME over and over until she was out, hovering above the pond, floating on her cushion, a little levitating lily pad.
“Looks like I got my money’s worth after all!” Daddy-o shouted.
Mabel looked out over the pond. She looked out over the hills that blushed with fall. “Up here,” Daddy-o called. “Above you!”
Mabel looked up to see Daddy-o twenty feet higher, flat on his stomach, swimming through the sky. “Looks like you got some work to do.”
Mabel pushed down at her sides to move the air away, but only rose two inches vertically. “I can’t go any higher!”
“We don’t say ‘can’t,’ Mabel. We say ‘can.’ That right there’s your problem!”
Mabel opened her mouth to say can, but all that came out was: “Help!”
“Can!” answered Daddy-o.
“Help!” repeated Mabel.
Daddy-o swam down to Mabel with a grin. “‘Can’t’ always seems easier at first, but in the long run, it’s just more work.” He lifted her cushion up over his head on one hand, as if to prove the ease of can. “It’s like I’m delivering a pizza!” Daddy-o cried, as they soared up to where the clouds looked like a dark afternoon rain. “A supreme one!”
Mabel caught herself smiling as they flew out over the countryside. Delivered was exactly how she felt.
That night, Daddy-o dropped Mabel off at home at eleven-thirty.
“Christ, Wade,” Mabel’s mother posed in the doorway, furious, her lit cigarette tapped repeatedly of ashes it did not possess. “It’s a fucking school night. What in the hell have you two been doing?”
“Aw, now,” Daddy drawled. “We’ve just been fishing.”
“Fishing?” her mother shouted. “For what? For your visitation rights to get yanked?”
Daddy-o flashed his pearlies and gave a shrug that Mabel’s mother knew all too well, the one she’d ultimately left him over. A shrug that insinuated he didn’t know, didn’t care, didn’t see what all the fuss was about.
“Don’t tell me he got you wrapped up in his hocus pocus.” Mabel’s mother said after Daddy-o hightailed it back to the Happy Thicket. “Don’t tell me you’re buying into his B.S.”
Mabel imagined her mother on one of Daddy-o’s cushions. She was using it the wrong way, folded in half under her head while she sprawled in the sun drunk. “I dunno, Maybe he’s on to something,” Mabel suggested.
“More like on something,” her mother said.
“At least he’s happy,” Mabel dared to say. “At least he’s nice.”
Mabel’s mother crushed out a second cigarette and stood, like Janet Yuri had, nearly nose-to-nose with Mabel. “He’s not happy and he’s not nice. He only seems that way. Deep down, he’s miserable and mean. And he’s knows just how to string you along.”
Mabel thought of the Bowie knife and the felt-tip mustache on her mother’s photo. Then she listened as her mother went outside to swear and smoke, then cry and sob. Mabel closed her eyes until she was back above the pond. This time, by herself, she made it almost up to where the clouds looked like rain.
At school on Friday, Janet Yuri watched Mabel the way the Happy Thicket owner watched Daddy-o, with suspicion and ire. In English, she passed Mabel a note. It was a drawing of two stick stick figures, a man and a girl smiling, oblivious, while an asteroid hurtled toward them. “Ignorance is bliss!” was written under it in loopy cursive, complete with i’s dotted with daisies.
“Your dad coming to pick you up today?” Janet asked after class.
“What’s it to you?” Mabel answered.
“I want to meet him, is all,” Janet said. “Who wouldn’t want to meet The World’s Happiest Man?”
Mabel frowned, protective. “I’m walking home alone,” she said. “He won’t be here.”
But he was. There, after school, on the fence—once again a snagged autumn leaf clinging hopeful— was Daddy-o, eating a vanilla soft serve with his left hand and dangling a necklace through the chain-link with his right. “I made you this, Maybe Baby. Made it for you today.”
Janet Yuri stormed Mabel as Mabel stormed the fence. “Get in the van,” Mabel seethed to her father. “Get in the van NOW.”
But Daddy-o didn’t flinch. He just kept on with his cone, while Mabel snatched the leather necklace from him. It was a choker sporting a small metal oval, likely cut and sanded from an old beer can, an oval that was stamped with the words CAN DO.
“This your dad?” Janet asked.
“I’m her dad,” Daddy-o replied.
“I hear you’re lots of fun to be around,” Janet said.
“That’s what they tell me,” Daddy-o smiled.
“Then why don’t you take me and Mabel to get some of that ice cream?”
“No,” Mabel cried. “Absolutely not.”
“Now, Mabel,” Daddy-o said. “That’s not how we talk to guests.”
“You two can go,” Mabel said. “I will not.”
Daddy-o winked and climbed into the yellow van. Janet Yuri scaled the fence and did as well. Daddy-o’s dogged commitment to friendliness suddenly felt like betrayal. Mabel groaned and climbed the chain-link. “Make it fast,” she said, as she got into the van. “I have work to do.”
At the Dairy Queen, Mabel turned hot and silent when Daddy-o produced his beaded pouch of dimes to buy Janet a cone. She knew her father had likely cleaned three toilets to pay for the ice cream. Janet asked for sprinkles.
“So, Mabel tells me you’re never sad. That nothing, not a person, place, or thing can bring you down.
“Mabel says that does, she?” Daddy-o smiled at Mabel.
“Sure does.” Janet licked her cone. “How come she doesn’t take after you?”
Mabel clenched her jaw. “Stop it, Janet.”
“What do you mean?” Daddy-o said.
Janet tilted her head in false concern. “I’m worried about Mabel. Mabel passes me notes.” Janet reached into her pocket and produced a wad of folded paper. “Like these.”
Mabel reached across the table, but Daddy-o swiped the notes away with cheer. “My girl’s a writer,” he said. “I love me some Mabel.”
Daddy-o opened the first. It was one Janet had drawn of a stick figure girl in a hangman’s noose. The second was of a stick figure girl in a car careening off a cliff. The third was of a girl with x’s for eyes and a knife in her chest. The caption read: What’s the point? Here’s the point! Janet licked her cone, around and around, with precision. “I find them troubling.”
Daddy-o stared at the four notes as if he were learning to read. “What,” he said softly. “How?”
Mabel, raw and fuming, said nothing. She did not understand how notes that were not hers could make her feel so exposed. Maybe Janet was right. Maybe Mabel was a liar. And maybe Daddy-o—who sat quiet across the table, his face now drained of its Pensacola brown—was too.
“I thought you should know,” Janet said. “I thought maybe…”
Daddy-o did not stay to hear the rest. He rose from the table as if his body hurt. He walked to the door of the Dairy Queen as if the floor were made of ice. And then he got into his yellow van and drove away.
“He doesn’t seem that happy to me,” Janet said.
Mabel didn’t answer her. She closed her eyes and let herself float. Up over the table where she saw the white part in Janet’s black hair. Up through the red roof of the restaurant. Up over the winding road that led to the Happy Thicket Motor Lodge. She needed to see where Daddy-o was going, where Daddy-o had gone.
Up close, the spotted fawn was much bigger than Mabel had imagined. It was the size of a prancing dairy cow, fashioned of painted metal and surrounded by a mass of neon tubes that flashed the deer’s three-part escape: before, during, after. It was nearly big enough for Mabel and Daddy-o to climb on and pretend to ride, rodeo-style.
“I didn’t write those notes,” Mabel said.
“But you feel that way,” Daddy-o said.
“Sometimes,” Mabel said. “Sometimes not.”
Up on the edge of the motor lodge’s sign, Daddy-o and Mabel stood, holding hands, alongside the smiling log. The lights hummed like a colossal swarm of gnats and turned the two of them red, yellow, green. Red, yellow, green. Stop, think, go. Stop, think, go. Below, Mabel could see a firetruck, two police cars, and an ambulance. The motel’s proprietor leaned against Daddy-o’s yellow van like he’d been waiting for this. Mabel watched as the firefighters brought out a life net—a large, dotted hoop, a giant dreamcatcher—which they hauled to the base of the sign. They squinted up in the night at Daddy-o and Mabel. Mabel thought she saw Janet in the gathering crowd. Daddy-o pointed out who he thought was Mabel’s mother.
“The girl should go first,” a fireman called through a megaphone. “First, the girl!”
Daddy-o winked at Mabel. His teeth shone bright as bathroom tiles. “Can you?” he asked. “Can you go first, Maybe Baby?”
Mabel nodded and beamed. She touched the hollow of her throat where the silver disk of Daddy-o’s necklace rested. “CAN,” she said. “CAN DO!”
“Then show them,” Daddy-o said. “Show them how it’s done.”
Mabel squeezed her eyes shut. Then Mabel opened them wide. Then Mabel leapt off the sign, just like a deer, the deer, and out into the night, in three robotic flashes, scaling the smiling log to land in the night sky. “I can!” she called to Daddy-o. “I did!”
Mabel galloped through the cool black. Above where the trees, now sleeping, blushed with fall. Beneath where the clouds, now hiding, swelled with rain. Below she could hear the crowd gasp, a fireman shout, a siren cry a single cry. She laughed until her cheeks shone with tears. And at one point, she looked back to see if Daddy-o would join her, out where nothing and no one could bring her down.
Whitney Collins is an MFA in Fiction student at Spalding University. Her non-fiction has appeared on Salon, McSweeney’s Internet Tendency, The Huffington Post, and The Weeklings, among others. She reviews books for Barnes & Noble and lives in Kentucky with her husband and sons.