Dad had been gone a week already, but every time Melody asked Mom where he was, she got the same answer—working. That didn’t make sense to her, because Dad had a job at the nuclear power plant construction site outside Oswego, along the shore of Lake Ontario. When she wondered if he was playing with his band, The Four Winds, Mom told her to stop the questions—and didn’t she have something better to do. So, she decided to be helpful: staying out of the way, keeping her little sister occupied, and not making too much noise when Mom went to bed in the middle of the day with a headache.
After dinner one night, Melody got up from the table without being asked and carried her empty glass to the sink, holding it up so Mom could see she’d drained all her milk. Mom only stared at her own tall glass, the ice cubes melting into the Coke and whatever she’d poured from the bottle in the cupboard over the stove.
From the sink, Melody pointed toward Jodie, who was six. “You got to finish your milk. That’s the rule. Right, Mom?”
Jodie pouted and rolled a tater tot against her catsup-smeared plate.
“What would Dad say?” Melody planted her hands on her narrow hips, a stance that she, at age eleven, associated with grown-ups. She sang one of Dad’s made-up songs: “One more, Jodie girl, now let’s make it two. Three will get you growing, and four before you’re through.” Dad had songs for everything—brushing teeth, doing homework, even hurrying up in the bathroom.
Mom skidded back in her chair and snatched the dishes from the table. Raising the short stack of plates to shoulder height, she smashed them on the floor.
“Ma—” Melody shrieked.
Another crash, and Mom’s glass hit the cupboards. Half-melted ice cubes bounced along the linoleum.
“I can’t stand it,” Mom screamed.
Melody grabbed Jodie by the wrist. Smelling pee, she knew Jodie had wet her pants, and pulled her into the bathroom. She ran the tub and shook in too much Mr. Bubble. As she watched the froth rise, Melody wondered if Mom was cleaning up the mess, sorry now that she’d made it. She knew Mom was sad, but had never seen her do anything like this before.
Melody started singing a song Dad liked, about kissing an angel every morning. He used to sing that song to Mom and dance her around the kitchen. Sometimes he’d dance with her, too, twirling her around until she got a little dizzy. When she’d fall into his arms, he always smelled like coffee and sweat, but not in a bad way. He hadn’t danced with them in a while. Before Dad left, he and Mom argued a lot about how much the time he was spending with The Four Winds.
“Where’s Mommy?” Jodie asked.
“In the kitchen.” Melody wondered why her little sister hadn’t asked for Dad—why, to her, Mom was the one who’d gone away.
The kitchen floor was still sticky the next day, and Melody picked up pieces of glass, but knew better than to tell her mother about it. In the afternoon, she rode her bicycle up and down the gravel driveway, wanting to go farther, but Jodie wasn’t allowed on the road, and she had to keep an eye on her. At four o’clock the newspaper was delivered by a guy driving a tan sedan. Melody brought the paper inside and opened it on the living room floor. As she turned to the comics, the middle slipped out: a double page printed as a Bicentennial flag—pink and white stripes and stars on a pale blue background. Melody taped it on the front window, smiling because Dad always took them to the July 4th parade in town. Today was June 30th—that meant he’d be home in a few days.
The next morning, Melody awoke to something metallic rattling on the other side of her bedroom wall. She ran out of her room and into the kitchen. “Dad—” She took a step back. “What are you doing here?”
Grandma Belva straightened up from the lower cupboard where she’d taken out a frying pan. “Your mother called me. Go put some shoes on and get the broom. I found glass on the floor. Don’t know why somebody’s got to tell you. You’re twelve, ain’t ya?”
“Not till December.” Melody went back to her room and pulled the sheet over her head.
Grandma Belva and Grandpa Don lived two hours away, on the other side of Syracuse. Mostly Mom took her and Jodie to visit them; Dad only went at Thanksgiving. Melody knew her grandparents didn’t like her dad very much.
Dad’s hair was black, and hers was almost as dark, except it shone reddish in the sun. In the summer, she’d put her forearm next to his and compare suntans; his was always a deeper brown. Jodie looked like Mom, blond with light eyes. Grandpa Don called Jodie the little golden girl.
The images made Melody sleepy, until a big hand gripped her shoulder and shook hard. Grandma Belva frowned at her. “Get your sister up and be quiet about it. Your mother needs to sleep.”
All that day and the next, Melody had to help Grandma Belva while her mother slept or walked around with a cigarette and Coke in a tall glass. Pretty soon, the house smelled like Pine Sol and Comet cleanser, and there were no more furry dust balls under the beds.
Grandma Belva took over Jodie’s room, so Melody and her little sister had to share. But Jodie always crawled in bed with their mother, not only at night, but sometimes during the day. When Melody looked through the open door to her parents’ room, she saw two blond heads propped up on the pillows.
Alone in her own room, Melody cradled the half-sized guitar her dad had bought her and practiced chords. The pads of her fingers were sore because she’d lost her calluses over the past few weeks; it hurt to build them up again.
When Mom walked down the hall toward the kitchen, Melody called after her. “Where you going?”
“Got an errand,” Mom said. “Keep an eye on Jodie, will you?”
“Grandma’s here. Can I come?”
“I’ll be back in five minutes.”
“Mom?” Melody hesitated. “Will Dad take us to the parade this year?”
Car keys jangled all the way to the back door.
Melody sat on the front porch, trying to predict the color of the next car to pass the house. She had to wait a while before she saw one. When her mother returned in their old station wagon, Melody went inside to see if she’d bought any ice cream. Mom pulled a carton of Salems and a six pack from a paper sack.
Grandma Belva stopped scraping carrots at the sink and put the beer in the refrigerator. “You got to get it together, Ann. You ain’t eighteen.”
“Don’t start, Ma.”
“You’re a grown woman with children. You ought to act like it.”
“Why isn’t somebody yelling at Frank to be a grown man, instead of going off somewhere, doing God knows what? Tell me that, Ma!”
Melody cut through the living room, where Jodie was playing on the rug, and headed out the front door without stopping to put on shoes. She rolled to the sides of her bare feet as she crossed the gravel driveway to the garage to get her bicycle. The pedals dug into her instep.
Down the road from where they lived, past the intersection with the yellow flashing light and a gas station on one corner and a small general store on the other, Melody spotted a boy on a bicycle. She’d seen him around since school got out, but didn’t know who he was.
About a half mile down the road, the boy caught up with her. He had on jeans and white socks; his hair was buzzed to a brush cut. “There’s a creek up a ways,” he said.
“I know.” Melody looked ahead.
“Wanna ride there?”
Melody shrugged; there wasn’t anything better to do.
The boy said his name was Charlie McMurphy, and he was staying with his aunt and uncle that summer. When he said his parents lived about 10 miles away, Melody thought they had to be really out in the sticks.
“How old are you?” she asked.
“Ten—eleven in October.”
“You going into fifth?”
“Fourth. Had to repeat.”
“I’m eleven. I’ll be in sixth.” She pushed hard on the pedals, even though it hurt her feet, and pulled ahead.
They bumped over railroad tracks marked only by a post that said RR X-ing, then passed an old farm where scrub bushes grew fat and tall in abandoned pastures, and a collapsed roof indented a weathered barn. Melody swerved to the shoulder and propped her bicycle on its kickstand. Charlie leaned his against the short stretch of guardrail.
Climbing down the embankment, Melody tried to pick a stalk of blue bachelor button flowers, but couldn’t snap the woody stem. Daisies and black-eyed susans grew thick near the mouth of culvert. On the opposite bank across the stony creek, yellow and red-orange flowers bobbed on thick, fuzzy stems. Fuzzy brushes. Melody smirked over the name she’d just made up.
It became their pattern, riding out to the creek, sometimes in the late morning or else in the early afternoon. They threw stones, made rafts out of sticks, searched for salamanders and frogs, and followed the stream as far back into the woods as they could go without getting scratched half to death by wild blackberry bushes. At first, they didn’t talk about much other than what they were doing at the creek. Then Charlie started telling her about the bar his parents owned; how he’d nearly beaten his brother, Bobby, who was fourteen, at pool. He told her his sister, Sissy, was pregnant. “Mom had a fit. Sissy’s only sixteen—she’s getting married. The guy is eighteen. He drives a truck.”
Melody didn’t know what to say. Talking to Charlie about girls being pregnant embarrassed her. “You’ll be an uncle,” she said at last.
“I hope it’s a boy. I can teach him to fish.”
“Not right away.” Melody thought about Jodie, who’d gone back to sucking her thumb. “Babies don’t do anything for a long time.”
On July 4th, Charlie came to the back door right after breakfast, saying his aunt and uncle were taking him to see the parade; she could come, too, he said.
“Can’t,” Melody told him. “My dad’s coming home today.”
“Okay, see you.” Charlie’s bike tires crunched the gravel as he left.
“Who’s coming?” Grandma Belva stood in the middle of the kitchen. “You know he ain’t, so don’t you go mooning around here. And don’t be asking your mother. She feels bad enough.”
That afternoon, Melody went to the creek by herself. Sitting on the bank, she told herself stories of how, when Dad came back, she’d play the guitar and sing all the time, until she got really good. Then they’d go to Nashville, just the two of them. She’d wear a cowgirl outfit, blue with silver fringe, and white boots with silver studs. Dad would wear all black, like Johnny Cash, except for a blue vest like hers. When they sang and played together, she’d live up to the name he gave her.
Maybe that’s where he was now, Melody thought suddenly. He could be in Nashville with The Four Winds, getting that big break he always talked about. Then he’d send for them, and they’d live in a big house and drive around in a big car, and say “you-all” like they did in the South.
Melody squinted at the glare of sunlight on the creek. Her eyes watered, and she rubbed her nose on the back of her hand, trying not to think about the other possibility: that her grandmother might be right about Dad never coming home.
The next day, her friend, Stacy, came over, and they played Clue and Mystery Date, but Jodie kept bugging them, and Grandma Belva said they had to include her. “Why’s your mom in bed?” Stacy asked. “She sick?”
Melody said yes, then no, then asked if Stacy wanted to get ice cream at the corner store. Neither of them had any money, so Melody woke up her mother to ask for a dollar. Grandma Belva yelled at her in front of Stacy. They sat outside for a little while longer, then Stacy went home.
The next day, Melody went back to the creek with Charlie. “Your dad come home yet?” he asked.
“He’s real busy. He’s in a band—The Four Winds,” Melody told him. “But he calls me all the time.”
“The Four Winds?” Charlie repeated. “They famous?”
“Not yet, but they might be.” Melody pictured the blue-and-silver cowgirl outfit. “I’m going to play with them when I get older.”
“My Dad says Bobby and me can stay at one of the cabins. There’s a bunch of them behind the bar. When one’s empty, him and me will get it.”
“How come you can’t stay with your parents?” Melody asked.
Charlie didn’t answer right away. “My ma has to work a lot at the bar. She don’t want me home by myself. Thinks I’ll get in trouble. I hate being at my aunt’s.”
Melody nodded. “I wish my grandmother would go home.”
As they headed back to the creek the next day, Charlie braked so hard the tires skidded. “D’you see him?” He pointed toward a mound of tufted grass.
Melody could barely make out a box turtle with a mud-colored shell and yellow around its mouth and throat.
Charlie tucked the creature under his arm as if it were a football and steered his bicycle one-handed. When they got to the creek, Melody insisted on carrying it to the water so Charlie wouldn’t hog the turtle. The outer shell was rock hard, but the underside felt leathery. Melody set the turtle near a puddle of water where the creek had receded. Suddenly Melody worried they’d done the wrong thing; maybe the turtle had a nest near the road and had been trying to get back to its babies.
“Turtles hatch in the spring,” Charlie told her. “They’re all grown up now. He’s better here than getting squished by a car in the middle of the road.”
“I wish my Dad would come home,” Melody said. Tears caught in her lashes.
Melody watched the turtle try to climb a rounded rock. “I don’t know where he is.”
On the last Friday of July, Charlie suggested they take a longer ride. It was getting boring at the creek, and they should find another place to go—like his parents’ bar. “It’s got a soda gun—you can mix stuff. But it’s a long ways, like 12 miles or something.”
“I don’t think I can ride that far,” Melody said.
“I do it all the time.” Charlie dug at a rock with the heel of his Keds until the ground gave it up. “Just don’t tell nobody we’re going.”
They took the back roads until they reached Route 104, where cars passed steadily in both directions. When a propane truck rushed by, Melody bumped off the shoulder and into the high grass. Hills were higher out this way, one so steep they had to get off their bicycles and push them. Finally, she saw the white sign with black letters, “Murf’s – Live Music Fri & Sat,” and the turnoff into the parking lot.
The bar was built to look like a log cabin, with split-plank siding painted brown and a long low porch that ran the length of the front. A broken barstool titled on three legs by the open front door. Melody couldn’t see much of the dark interior until her eyes adjusted. She stood in the rectangle of light from the open doorway, while Charlie plunged inside and talked to a woman behind the bar. Her hair was red and pinned off her neck, but not in any particular style. Charlie called her “Ma.”
“You kids get a Coke and then go on back home.” Mrs. McMurphy rubbed a spot on the bar with a rag.
They lingered on the front porch drinking their sodas, then Charlie motioned, and Melody followed him behind the bar. Five tiny cabins with tarpaper roofs and plank siding formed a semicircle on a rise about 20 yards away.
Charlie squatted in a cement block and drew in the dirt with a stick.
Melody stamped footprints into the dust of the parking lot. “We can go.”
Charlie didn’t move. “I’m resting.”
After a while Melody had to use the bathroom. The back door of the bar opened onto the kitchen, where Mrs. McMurphy was shaping ground beef into hamburger patties. She pointed the way to the restroom with a meat-smeared finger.
The doors were side-by-side, marked Gals and Guys. Inside was a small sink and two stalls; it smelled like cigarette smoke. There, on the wall by the mirror, was an orange flyer with black letters: “The Four Winds, Fri. & Sat., 8 p.m. No cover. Two drink min.”
Melody stared at the paper, as if more words would appear to explain how all this was possible: how Dad could be 12 miles away, but not come home at night; how he could make music while Mom stayed in bed, and Grandma Belva bossed everybody around, and Jodie kept sucking her thumb, and she never, ever wanted to play guitar again.
Melody ran out the front door of the bar. Charlie was waiting for her. Her bike was parked by the railing.
“Just wait.” Charlie grabbed the handlebars and wheeled the bike to the back of the bar. He kicked the stand hard, but the bicycle fell over.
Melody righted her bike. “Come on, Charlie. I want to go home.” Her throat scratched and her eyes watered. “I don’t want to be here.”
Charlie walked up the rise to the semi-circle of cabins and headed to the last one on the right. Melody trailed behind him, then stood a short ways back while Charlie pounded on the door.
“Who’s there?” a man yelled.
Charlie bolted. Melody stood where she was.
Her dad opened the door, his dark hair drooping low over his forehead like a bird’s broken wing. He was barefoot, and his shirt was unbuttoned.
Melody took two steps forward. “Dad?”
He shaded his eyes with his hand, and leaned out of the doorway.
“Frank, who is it?” A woman appeared, wearing shorts and a scoop-necked t-shirt, her brown hair pulled into a ponytail. Melody could see the end of a bed behind them.
“Melody,” Dad said.
She didn’t know if her dad tried to run after her, but the stones in the driveway stopped him, or if he stood there watching her ride away, or if he closed the door and went back inside. She didn’t know because she didn’t look back.
When Charlie finally caught up to her, Melody screamed so hard, she nearly lost her balance and fell off her bike. “That wasn’t my dad! He’s not here!”
“You said The Four Winds,” Charlie yelled at her back as she kept pedaling. “You said you wanted to see him.”
Melody rode faster, letting the breeze take Charlie’s words away.
It was after supper by the time they got back. Grandma Belva demanded to know where she’d been, but Melody stomped into her bedroom and slammed the door.
Melody stayed home for three days, until Grandma Belva pulled her into the pantry and asked if that boy had put his hands where they didn’t belong.
“No!” Melody yelled. “I just don’t want to go. There ain’t even water in that creek sometimes.”
“Don’t say ain’t,” Grandma Belva corrected.
“You do.” Melody set her jaw hard.
“Yeah, but you shouldn’t.” Grandma Belva’s slippers flopped against her swollen feet as she shuffled back into the kitchen.
The next day, Melody found a wilted bouquet of fuzzy brushes on the back step. She went to the creek with Charlie after that, but they never discussed the ride to the bar, the man they saw, or anything else that concerned the adults.
After supper that night, Melody saw her mother sitting by herself at the kitchen table with coffee and a cigarette. Circles darkened her eyes, and her face was blotchy. For the first time, Melody felt sorry for her mother. She wouldn’t tell who she saw at the cabin, Melody decided. Not then or ever.
The next Sunday afternoon, Melody lay across the floor of her bedroom, turning jigsaw puzzle pieces picture-side up. Jodie played with a doll on the bed. When their mother came into the room, Melody saw her eyes were soft and moist, her mouth smiling. “Somebody’s here,” Mom told them.
At the sound of Dad’s voice, Melody’s slowed down. Jodie squealed and ran ahead. When Melody reached the kitchen table, Jodie was on his lap, her arms around his neck. He stood up, still holding Jodie, and bent down to give her a hug. “How’s my girl?” Dad smelled like coffee and sweat. “You know I couldn’t stay away from you,” he said in her ear.
The next day Grandma Belva packed up. Charlie came by, but Melody said she wanted to stay home since her dad was back.
“I’m going out to the cabins tomorrow. One’s empty. I ain’t gonna be at my aunt’s no more.”
“See ya.” Melody waved back when Charlie turned at the end of the driveway.
At home, things returned to normal. Dad left for work in the morning and came home in time for supper at five-thirty. Mom wore makeup and fixed her hair. Melody invited Stacy over and they slept in a tent in the backyard. School started again; Melody did homework, and Jodie stopped sucking her thumb.
Dad left The Four Winds, but still played guitar at home. When he sang “I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry,” Mom leaned in close, then hugged him hard. Melody hung back. Dad didn’t sound anything like Hank Williams. He wasn’t good enough for Nashville.
Whatever her parents had said or done or promised each other was never discussed, not even after Melody grew up and went off to college in Boston, where she stayed. Melody broached the subject with her mother only once, soon after she graduated and came home to visit. She and her boyfriend had hit a rough patch, and she wasn’t sure they’d make it as a couple, despite two years of steady dating.
“How did you and Dad get through the tough times?” Melody tried not to cry about her relationship, which she knew was already over, even as she tried to hang on to the pieces “Did you just put it behind you, or talk it out?”
“Why would you be so selfish as to remind me of the saddest time in my life?” her mother retorted. Melody never asked again. When she returned to Boston, she and her boyfriend broke up for good the next weekend. He’d already started seeing someone else.
When she was thirty-five, Melody married Henry Travers, a perfectly nice man she could live without if he ever changed his mind and left. They lived peaceably, but without much passion.
As her parents aged, Melody increased the frequency of her visits. Last summer, her father died of a heart attack at age 72. Her mother didn’t want to stay alone in the house and, after six months on a waiting list, was able to move into the senior apartments in town. Melody flew in from Boston and Jodie from California to pack up the house.
While Melody emptied drawers and closets, Jodie went through a box of photos, setting aside the ones of herself. Hauling a large garbage bag toward the back door, Melody passed Mom and Jodie at the kitchen table; their heads together, one blond and one gray, they looked through an album.
“To think I was ever that young.” Her mother held up a photo. In it, she wore a sundress and sat on the hood of a car. “Your father was handsome. All the girls were after him, but I was the one he chose. He wouldn’t take me to my senior prom, though, because he was twenty and said it was for kids. I went with some boy from my class. He got so jealous.”
Jodie unfolded her long legs and got up from the table, saying she’d seen another album in the closet. Melody picked up the garbage bag to take it out to the garage.
“Do you know why he came back?” her mother asked.
Melody put the bag down on the floor.
“Because of me.” Her mother lifted her chin. “He loved me.”
“I’m sure he did, Mom. We were all glad when Dad came home.”
Melody wondered what was in the glass by the photo album, even though her mother had supposedly quit drinking a few years back. But Mom never considered wine or beer to be real alcohol—not like her beloved rum-and-Coke.
“He didn’t come back because you caught him. He came back for me. He loved me. I was the one he loved the most—not you!”
Melody grabbed the bag of garbage by the twisted top, ready to agree to whatever her mother said. For a moment, a memory flashed: her father’s homecoming, him holding Jodie and bending down to give her a hug, then whispering in her ear: You know I couldn’t stay away from you. “Whatever you say, Mom.”
Melody walked out the back door, across the yard, and into the garage. She left the garbage in a heap with the other bags, inside the door.
Without saying a word, Melody got her purse and left in her rental car, driving out along a familiar road.
Skirting the guardrail, she climbed down the same embankment she remembered from childhood, thirty-nine years ago. Coarse grass poked her ankles and scratched between the straps of her sandals. In the lengthening shadows, scraggly wildflowers nodded sleepy heads: bachelor buttons, Queen Anne’s lace, joe-pye weed, black-eyed susans, and the yellow and red-orange flowers with thick stems that, as a child, she’d named fuzzy brushes. Melody smiled; she hasn’t thought about in years.
By the time the creek bed was bathed in shadows, Melody got up to leave. She drove a little farther to a small cemetery, to the plot and stone her father had picked out after the doctor diagnosed him with chronic obstructive pulmonary disease. “Your mother’ll never be able to do it,” he’d told her once.
The stone was chiseled with “Beloved Husband & Devoted Father,” then a line from one of his many unpublished songs: “She loved me and I loved them, and one most of all.” Her mother had always taken that as testimony, truly written in stone, that her love had saved him, brought him back to his family and to her. But this night, still stung by her mother’s words, Melody found a different meaning: Mom had loved him, but he’d loved her and Jodie, and her most of all.
The flowers were wilting already, the stems limp and rubbery, petals closing like sleepy eyes. She left them at the base of the gravestone, then used her phone to do an internet search of wildflowers—red-orange blossoms, thick fuzzy stems.
“Hawkweed,” she said aloud. After all these years, it felt good, important even, to finally name the truth.
Videography by Pat Commins