Everdeen | When My Father Calls
Sometimes peanuts and patience can help a heart mend.
My father keeps an aluminum can of peanuts on a wood-slab shelf in our basement. The can has a clear lid with a metal spit, like the mouth of a Ball jar. Two rooms away, in the stenciled cabinets of my childhood kitchen, there are several back-up bags of the same peanuts, in case the can goes empty while Everdeen is still hungry. Winters are long in New Hampshire.
Every Sunday my father drives over the Cornish–Windsor covered bridge and along the Connecticut River to pick up his mother from the nursing home. In the seven miles between his tan farmhouse and her pink walls, he thinks of things to say, and in this small yet distant space reminds himself that happiness is a state of mind.
When she’s not visiting my father’s house, my grandmother calls to ask why no one ever visits or why no one told her that my grandfather had died. The calls come daily over the last few years, after I moved 100 miles south in the state to marry my husband. I know this because when I’m home, visiting, I hear my father rehearse the script after the caller ID announces, “Cedar Hill Nursing Home.”
“Hi, Mom … Yes, don’t worry, I know where you are … I had a great time with you on Sunday. Remember we had a fried-chicken picnic and you fed Everdeen? … Do you want me to come pick you up again next weekend for a visit? … Okay, great, but remember that it’s only Tuesday, Mom. If you forget when I’m coming, just look at your calendar. I’ve written everything down on it … Yes, I’ll be there Sunday. I’ll have peanuts ready for your visit … Love you, too, Mom. Bye.”
Everdeen waits for my father to arrive, too. She’s a chipmunk the size of a fat mouse, her chestnut fur striped with two white and two black streaks that run to the tip of her tail. Her eyes, which become small, round circles when she puffs up her cheeks with seed, are the color of bittersweet chocolate. One day, at the beginning of my father’s arrangement with Everdeen, he told me to sit on the patio with him so that I could see his new pastime. It was July, a couple of years ago. I was home for the town’s Fourth of July parade, and we’d spent the morning watching 4-H kids ride decorated bicycles over the faded yellow lines of Main Street. My grandmother was asleep on the couch.
We sat on wicker patio furniture, my father whittling a walking stick with the wood-sided pocket knife my mother had given him for one of their anniversaries before she died in 2006. “Hand me a nut,” he said. “Watch.” He lowered his hand down to his side, flattening it under the peanut I’d fished out of the can. I was 7 again in that moment, not 27, and I thought of the many Christmas Eves that I’d lain silent in my parents’ bed waiting to hear reindeer bells. But it was spring, 20 years later: My younger brother, Nick, had a job in North Carolina; my mother existed only in our memories, before the cancer took her; my father’s short beard was completely gray. There were more lines on his forehead, and his hands were callused from trying to make everything perfect.
“Just carry on like you don’t know she’s there,” he told me, brushing the wood chips from the small shelf of his belly. We looked over the row of red impatiens he’d planted along the edge of the patio and toward the garden in the upper lot, where my father had bent and tied saplings into a teepee so that his beans could grow upward without tangling. On our periphery, we watched my father’s chipmunk bob between hostas. I watched my father’s face, steady and concentrated, and tried to seem oblivious as he watched for Everdeen.
“She’s timid,” he said as he peeled a piece of green wood from the sliver he’d just made. “And she’s still trying to figure me out. If you stare at her, she’ll turn and run.” As he talked, I tried to make out Everdeen’s shadow by moving only my eyes. “Patience,” he said, not looking up.