Skinny Legs Meg sits on the white wicker chair and picks at her dirty curled toes.
“Meghan,” Father’s deep voice rumbles, rushing through her translucent skin like the frigid black waves of her fragmented memories, giving rise to microscopic goosebumps all over her arms and legs.
Her father sips his tea and looks over the cup at her with pit black eyes. He calls her by her full name. Nobody else ever does, and now as always she wants to correct him, to say no, Father, my name is Skinny Legs Meg, everybody calls me that. She’s quivering, though, knowing with the kind of knowledge that comes directly from a darkness deep inside, that she’ll never muster up the courage to tell him. She feels damp all over from the memory of those frightening black waves—little more than a fragment to haunt her dreams, now, stripped of any real body because she has not been back to the seaside to see them again, since her mother left.
“Meghan, stop picking at your toes like a baboon and sit like a civilized young lady,” Father instructs her, cup and saucer in hand.
Mr. Charlie from next door, who was invited to join in their teatime, sits next to her at the wicker table looking refined under his shock of powdery white hair, smelling vaguely of pine leaves and mint. He clucks his tongue disapprovingly before nibbling at a fat red grape he holds poised between his right thumb and forefinger. “She’s incorrigible, that one.”
“You can leave the rearing of my daughter to me, thank you,” says Father. “Would you like some sugar with your tea?” he continues in a somewhat softer voice—or, at least, what could be said to be her father’s idea of soft. The voice is icy and slick, cutting through Mr. Charlie’s fine linen clothes even as Father gently pushes the blue-and-white porcelain bowl of sugar toward him, a thin smile upon his lips.
Skinny Legs Meg takes one last look at her filthy toes and slides her feet off the chair. Her sandy blonde hair, matted with dirt and bugs, is pulled back into a limp ponytail, and she wears a soiled dress, fat red strawberries patterned across a white background.
Father regards her face. “You need to clean up after the luncheon,” he announces.
“Incorrigible,” Mr. Charlie mutters, but his powdery blue eyes refuse to meet her father’s, instead stubbornly regarding the wicker pattern on the surface of the table. He will be like the others—he will not return. Her father has systematically repelled every neighbor on the street with his courteous invitations to tea.
“Have some more sugar, please, thank you,” her father now threatens, without taking his eyes off her. She shrinks into her white wicker chair, wiggles her toes, and envies Mr. Charlie, who can leave this dreary place and return to the freedom of his lovely white home and three loving daughters, three pairs of giant blue eyes angelically uplifted toward him, three pairs of slender porcelain arms extended for a warm, welcoming hug. She envies her mother, too, who picked up and left when she couldn’t handle anymore—Skinny Legs Meg, unlike them, is doomed to remain tied to this wicker chair forever, trapped under the sour searching gaze of her dark father.
After the neighbor picks his hat up from the table-top—after he gives a courteous nod to Father, who smiles grimly in return—he pushes back his chair and rises, announcing with a sweeping gaze over the two of them and also the grass and the trees that he must be getting home to his three beautiful daughters and wife, who are waiting for him. “Meghan, show Mr. Charlie to the front yard, if you please,” her father barks, nodding toward the front of the house. She begrudgingly clambers down from her chair and slumps beside bright Mr. Charlie as he combs his way out of the prison that God has condemned her to for life, for some dire sin she cannot remember. When the wicker chair containing Father’s distant square back has disappeared around the corner of the house, the neighbor puts his hat on his head and winks down at her, smiling broadly. “Tell you what, kid,” he says, “read Washington Square. It’s Henry James’s. You like to read?” She shakes her head no. He continues, “Read it anyway. Great stuff. I think you’ll like it.” He pats her fondly on the head and trots away down the road.
“Meghan, change out of those detestable clothes,” Father says from behind her, suddenly visible leaning against the railing of the stairs that lead up to the front door. “Didn’t your mother give you that scrap? Come inside now.” Shaking his head, he ascends the steps and, again, vanishes.
He never even calls her Skinny Legs Meg, when everybody else in the world calls her that. It’s an obvious nickname, when people look at her small frame and note the spaghetti legs that stick out from under her skirt.
Maybe Father does not see her legs. Perhaps, she reasons, watching a crow caw high up in a tree in the dimming light of day, she is lost to him. Or maybe he is lost to her.
Behind her, the screen door clangs as it is slammed back against the wall of the house. She jumps around, startled. Father is silhouetted in the doorframe, an ugly scowl written across his face. “I told you to come inside, Meghan!” He shouts, climbing down the stairs, rushing toward her. Frightened, she slips away from his outreached hands and runs around to the backyard. He pursues her, slowly, with difficulty, his limbs clumsy because of his age. In her panic, she bumps into one of the white wicker chairs and overturns it, hearing a roar in response from behind her that makes her heart beat faster and her feet quicker.
Legs numb from fear, she still manages to run back around the house and through the open front door, all the way to her upstairs bedroom, where she urgently shuts and locks herself in.
She hears the screen door again as he enters, and then the footsteps up the stairs and then he is at the other side, banging and shouting for her to come out.
“No, no!” she cries, tears streaming down her face as she backs away toward the opposite wall of her room, sliding down to the floor as her spaghetti legs give way beneath her.
“No dinner tonight, Meghan,” he growls, turning around and stomping down the hallway to his study, the door of which he slams and locks behind him.
In her room she is trembling. The crow caws outside her window. Father does not see her skinny legs. He only sees himself.
Several days later, after Father has calmed and promptly sent her filthy strawberry dress off to Salvation Army, Skinny Legs Meg enters Father’s cluttered brown office to find him sitting at his desk grading papers. The blinds are closed, so that he appears to her as no more than a vague outline, shrouded in darkness.
The night that Mother left, before Skinny Legs Meg even knew what had happened, Father had stormed into her room and woken her up. While she stared at him bleary-eyed, he took a seat at the foot of her bed, nothing more than a shadow, and began to lecture her about the nature of the elements and the structure of the Periodic Table. She had sat up and stared at him in utter confusion, both at what he was saying and why he had chosen this moment to say it. Then, in the middle of a meticulous description of Chromium, he abruptly stopped, rose, and left the room, this time shutting the door quietly behind him and whispering “Good night.” It wasn’t until the next morning that Skinny Legs Meg realized Mother had vanished. She searched through every room of their large house and could find only the fading scent of the rosemary perfume that still stood, half-full, on the bureau in her parents’ room.
She had entered his office, this rarely-visited territory, in order to boast to Father of an A she had received in her science class that very day. However, all thoughts of that glamorous grade vanish as she approaches him quietly from behind, bare toes clinging fast to the soft rug, and notes the black-and-white photo of Adolf Hitler, apparently clipped from a newspaper, taped to the wall above Father’s head.
“What’s the new photo for?” she asks.
Father’s head starts; then, he slowly lays his pen down upon the desk. Twisting around in his chair as minimally as possible, so that his dark eyes leer at her from above his shoulder, he does not respond but merely chides, “I thought I told you, Meghan, not to enter this room unless you are invited. Stand up straight, Meghan, you look as though you have no spine. Where are your shoes, Meghan? I don’t believe I run a poorhouse. Go away now, Meghan, and please let me be.”
After several weeks have passed in this manner, Meghan one evening in the dark lonely kitchen helps herself to scraps she can scrounge from within the refrigerator—this is her dinner—and afterwards steps quietly into the office upstairs to bid Father good-night before she goes to bed. She finds him there as usual, the Hitler photo still taped to the wall above his head. This time, however, Father seems to be ignoring the pile of tests waiting to be graded on his desk; his black gold-rimmed pen lies neatly, diagonally, across the top of the pile, unused. Instead, he is busy whittling away at a piece of wood with a small knife he must have taken from the kitchen. Shards fly to his sides and are beginning to form little piles on the carpet, as he molds the wood to the shape of a sharp point. Hitler’s eyes glare down at them contemptuously; tiny, piggish.
“Is that a stake, Father?” she asks quietly, coming up beside him, her eyes worriedly scanning him. He wordlessly shakes his head no, without looking up at her. As usual, he does not care to see her.
Her lip quivers in the oppressive silence of this dark stormy room. She would like to turn on her heel and march out of it forever, slamming the door behind her and locking it with her father inside—but she finds instead that she cannot tear her eyes away from his bowed head, his concentrated stare, his swift and nimble fingers.
When Father used to take walks with her in the park, striding next to her, tall and proud, he would tell her stories about chemists of the past. He admired Marie Curie but despised Niels Bohr, “the man who bumbled through life.”
“Weak! Weak!” he always spat, in reference to Mr. Bohr, a look of utter disgust painted across his prideful features. It was at times like those that Skinny Legs Meg gulped and looked down at the dirt path, anxious to avoid meeting his eyes and causing his arms and fists to flail out at her.
Now, she gazes at him steadfastly, dying to escape this dark Hitlerized room, closing in on her, and yet rooted to that spot by the side of the man who is whittling a stake, her father. Searching desperately for words to break the killing silence, she finally takes a breath and says, looking at the little knife in his fingers rather than at his face, “I saw Mr. Charlie today as I walked home from school, Father. We got to talking, and he said that there was nothing ordinary about life.”
The little knife stops abruptly, as one last little shaving flutters silently to the floor. She painstakingly raises her eyes to meet his, boring into her icily. Twirling the stake absent-mindedly in his hands—will he pierce her with it?—he murmurs, “Perhaps you shouldn’t listen to fools who read James.”
Skinny Legs Meg’s legs aren’t so skinny anymore. They grow rounder, and curve, widen at the hips. The scraggly young girl of sandy blonde hair and filth is lost in the woman of newly blossomed bosom and more sharply defined eyes and nose. Now, her friends call her Meghan.
She begins to use the pale rosemary perfume that Mother left behind, which Father has avoided as if it were contagious ever since that night he barged into her room, sat at the foot of her bed, and lectured about the elements. He doesn’t notice the return of the fragrance. As usual, he does not care to see her.
In fact, he rarely emerges from that office of his anymore. When she climbs upstairs to go to bed at night, the moment her foot touches the floor of the hallway she scurries like a little mouse to the left end, where her bedroom is—the living end. She tries very hard not to look behind her at the dead end, where that awful dark room leers at her, with its faint smells of fresh wood and the distant sound of whittling from within.
Today, Meghan rests on her stomach in the living room downstairs—always empty, now—amidst a sea of homework from school. Though it has recently grown dark outside, she has not turned the lights on, so shadows of extraordinary shapes are cast on the walls by objects that in the day are very ordinary.
Thrust to the side on top of her World History binder is Washington Square, an old copy she found in Father’s library with the cover all turned up and bent at the corners. She will give a report on it for extra credit in her English class tomorrow.
For now, though, she ignores it, and instead regards her open Chemistry textbook pensively. In the past, perhaps she would have asked Father for help—he would have delighted in pretentiously lifting the book out of her grimy inferior hands and reciting a lesson to her as if he were her teacher, and she the careless sloppy student that always needed to be corrected. Tonight, however…tonight, she would not ask. She would not approach that dim corner upstairs.
They are studying Mr. Bohr’s outdated model of the atom in her textbook, and a black-and-white photo of the scientist himself stares out at her—he has a dopey expression, a sort of half-smile and shy regard, as though he is a little bit nervous, absent-minded and graceless—a bumbler. Like her. She sympathizes with Mr. Bohr—if she didn’t look closely at the face that bears the expression, she would almost have confused the photo with one of herself.
Little signs of love and happiness fade with time, until they invoke in those who look at them more of melancholy than they ever did of happiness. Pretty silk ribbons of purple and cream, for example, that at first seemed to wink out at her joyfully when her mother sat her before a mirror and wove them into her hair, have collected layers of dust as for years now they have rested at the bottom of a little basket of trinkets on her bureau, where she last threw them. She comes across them again one evening, in the midst of rummaging through her room to rid it of the last vestiges of Skinny Legs Meg. Holding the faded ribbons up before her briefly, her lips pursed and eyebrows drawn in a look of confusion, she suddenly remembers what they are for. It seems as though they are still trying to wink at her, but they are exhausted, too old and weak to laugh and dance like they once did. The promise of small brightness they once carried is now battered out of them with the passage of time. Sighing, she drops them into the trashbag with the rest of her garbage.
From the dim room down the other end of the short hall, her ears perk up as she hears distant humming. Out-of-tune, rough—but humming, nonetheless. Her father never used to hum. As she approaches—as always, with caution—she realizes at once two things. First, that the office door is ajar, even though Father usually likes it shut, and second, that the song is “Chances Are” by Johnny Mathis, which Mr. Charlie next door had told her in one of their lengthy conversations was played at her parents’ wedding.
“Hey,” she says quietly, giving the door a gentle push and letting it creak open. Father does not turn around. The piles of wood shavings on either side of him go up to his mid-calves now. As usual, he is whittling away at another stake. The finished ones have all been thrown into a large pile in one corner, spilling out into the center of the room. She tries to ignore this pile, to think of the office as any other office, and approaches his side.
“Father” she says, this time loudly. “I have a boyfriend now. Thought you might like to know.” Fathers want to know these things about their daughters, because they are overprotective. In the old days, she would not have dared to tell Father. He would have bashed her brains out if he knew.
But he doesn’t respond now. How could she be so silly as to think otherwise? He
never has cared to see her.
“Dad. Daddy. Pa, for chrissakes.” He never liked to be called anything but Father.
Still, he refuses to respond—refuses, even, to look at her. His dark eyes swiftly follow the movement of the small knife against the soft wood.
“You didn’t even hear what I said!” she shouts, losing patience. “Do you even see me, Dad? Father? Have you ever noticed that I’m here too?”
Looking down into his lap coated with wood shavings, her father’s lips slowly twist into a menacing, sickly smile. Slowly—slowly, he raises his eyes to look dead into hers, which are brimming with tears. He smiles at the tears he does not see running down her cheeks, despite her best efforts to stop them. Slowly—slowly, those twisted lips open, and the words spill out, one by one, methodically—“You look like your mother when you tremble, Skinny—Legs—Meg.”
“Shut up! You didn’t used to call me that! You never liked it when other people called me that!” she shouted, her voice rising, panicked. She falls to her knees and interlocks her hands in front of her, as if in prayer, looking up at him with pleading eyes, gasping between choked sobs, “What’s—happened—to—you—Father?”
But that is all for the day. He will say no more. His eyes deftly turn back to his handiwork, his lips take up their mournful hum once more. The hum—like the ribbons.
The photograph of Hitler is still taped to the wall.
In the evening, the shadows on the walls in the living room slither about and form strange shapes that fuel Meghan’s underfed imagination.
The one across from her looks like a man nailed upon a cross.
Jesus was a carpenter, all those years ago, much like Meghan’s father is now. There isn’t much similarity between Jesus and Father, though. Father will never hang on a cross.
The man on the cross brings salvation to all mankind—even her mother, or what she remembers of her–the vibrant dresses and hot pink lipstick, the artificially colored hair piled in curls atop her head. In the sediment of Meghan’s brain rests a sunlit memory of Father sitting smugly across from her at dinner in his black suit, glinting eyes, and peppered black and white hair. He scrutinizes her and muses, “Your mother believed in God.” This was remarkable to little Meghan, then Skinny Legs Meg, because it was the first time he had talked about Mother in the past tense.
Back when Father used to converse with her from time to time, and hold tea parties with the neighbors, he often complained about stereotypes, especially ones concerning scientists. It bothered him that people looked at highly educated men of science and assumed that they were non-religious. “Your mother assumed that when she met me,” he complained to her, and to anyone else who would listen. “A silly, ignorant assumption.”
Father always neglected to mention that he was an Atheist.
Some say that Love is the most powerful force on earth. Meghan knows that this is false, for weak, feeble Love couldn’t keep her parents together.
A telegram arrives in the mail one day that informs her, in one sentence eleven words long in size nine font, of Mother’s death from Cancer, in Egypt or some faraway place like that. Maybe it was New York. It doesn’t really matter.
She reads the telegram aloud to Father and remarks dryly, “I didn’t even know she had Cancer.” Father puts down his knife and the stake he is currently working on—places both neatly on the desk, and folds his free hands in his lap. He bows his head and regards these callused hands intently, a tight frown on his face. This is the extent of his reaction to the letter. After waiting a full five minutes more in that awful dark smelly room, Meghan sighs audibly and turns on her heel, tripping as fast away from him as possible. She assumes he must still go to work in the mornings and return before she comes home from school, since their bills haven’t stopped getting paid, but she doesn’t understand how he could be functional anymore.
He, who used to teach her about the Periodic Table.
That evening, the room at the other end of the hallway is bursting with noise. She hears clattering sounds, thumps, scrapes—enough racket that it is long into the night before she finally falls asleep, her heart all the while quivering, her hands clenched into fists with fear and worry, hidden by her sides under her blanket.
When she emerges from her room the next morning, the door to his office has been thrown wide open, and not only have the blinds been opened, but all of the windows, so that sunlight pours into the room that has rested in darkness for so many years. Dusty shelves packed with books that are no longer touched are illuminated, along with a little corner shelf holding classic rock and sixties pop records that she never noticed before, shrouded as the room had been for so long in obscurity. The room is cold as the wind blows across from all sides, and several crunchy leaves from outside sweep across the floor. The wood shavings have been tossed all over the room, coating the floor, the desk, the chair, and the shelves. The stakes, too, have been thrown helter-skelter—they are found everywhere in the office and even, she notices through one of the windows, outside on the lawn.
One unfinished stake rests in the center of the desk.
Father is nowhere in sight. Neither, Meghan realizes with a sinking heart, is his small carving knife.
But the picture of Hitler has been taken off the wall.