There wasn’t much to do in the town Ellen grew up in, but every couple of months the more popular church hosted a ten-buck per-head community square-dance. Weirdly, they always garnered an impressive turnout, especially among the teenagers, who would publicly make out until a supervising nun would remind them to leave room for Jesus. Ellen’s father Perry would take Ellen, and the two of them would dance together until their cheeks turned red from sweating. When Ellen returned home for the first time in years to watch Perry die, she found she couldn’t stop thinking about the square-dances. Her checkered dresses were still in her childhood closet, zipped in plastic.
Perry’s death was a long time coming. He had been struggling with his health for over a decade. Even so, it wasn’t until six days after Ellen’s arrival that he finally did die. Which meant Ellen had to endure six days of her stepmother’s rice pudding; six days where Ellen ignored the incoming condolence cards and watched cable television and avoided the slippery kisses of her Aunty Tram, who had her heart set on inheriting the gold clock in the living room.
Ellen had flown in with her husband and her daughter. It was her daughter’s first time on a plane. She cried the entire time. Ellen hadn’t noticed. “I guess we made some new enemies today,” her husband joked. Ellen asked, “why’s that?”
Perry was situated in his bed, the plumpest pillows in the house cushioning his head. Ellen’s husband talked to him a lot: how his granddaughter’s first word was “baseball,” which neither him nor Ellen understood, because they did not care at all for the sport; how Ellen recently got promoted to an assistant manager position; how they were thinking of taking a trip to Florida in the spring. Perry, barely conscious, nodded along politely. Ellen watched.
“It’s good that you’re here,” Ellen’s stepmother, Sara, told Ellen. “He’s so happy to be around you.”
“Yeah. I mean, obviously I want to be here for him.”
Sara was in charge of the funeral arrangements. She had been married to Perry for twenty years. She fed him his pills every morning with a glass of pulpy orange juice. She gave him two scoops of vanilla ice cream over strawberries every night. Once he couldn’t walk anymore, she pushed his wheelchair around the yard, so he’d breathe in the fresh, wet air. Once he couldn’t see anymore, she read him books about hunting and the Revolutionary war.
“I’m sure you’ll want to say some things at the service,” Sara said. “Do you have something prepared?”
Ellen had tried to write on the plane. She wasn’t satisfied with anything she put on paper, it all sounded stale and generic. “Yeah, I can say a few things,” she told Sara. Sara moved to embrace Ellen, but Ellen’s daughter started crying for a diaper change. Ellen was really glad to have her daughter there, she was a great distraction. Whenever the conversation got tense, Ellen would ask if anyone wanted to hold the baby. There was always someone who wanted to hold the baby. “Let me go take care of that,” Ellen told Sara, ducking her outstretched arms.
On the fifth day of their visit, Ellen’s husband found Ellen smoking pot in the bathtub. “This is what it was like,” Ellen giggled. “All of my childhood was sneaking around like this. I feel like nothing’s changed.” Ellen’s husband sighed and told her to open the window wider.
Ellen did have a lot of rules growing up. She always sensed it was because of how she looked. Ellen was what Aunty Tram called an early bloomer. She got her period in the fourth grade. When Perry found the pads in her room, he punched a hole in the dining room wall. He gave her a nine p.m. curfew and threw out all the tank tops she owned. She was not allowed to be friends with any boys. One time, Perry caught her kissing Tyler M. in the library parking lot. He gave her a black eye. When Ellen was fifteen, she knelt beside her bed at night and prayed that her father would die. She asked God to send some horrible disaster, like a tornado or house fire. “I don’t want him to suffer,” she whispered, “but I want him gone.”
Perry died in front of Ellen, as she held his hand and counted prayer beads over and over again between her forefinger and thumb. Once he was really dead, Ellen tore the rosary apart and all the beads fell onto the floor. Perry’s favorite reverend, who burped often and smelled like sawdust, massaged Ellen’s shoulders, mumbling “child, my dear child,” until she got so annoyed she excused herself to the bathroom.
Sara placed calls to distant relatives. Several flower baskets arrived at the house; Ellen left them in a cluster by the coat rack. There was the mourning brunch, with mimosas and eggs cooked sunny-side up; a couple of people who Ellen didn’t know very well cried. At the wake, Ellen was given time alone with Perry. She bowed down to the open casket, but she couldn’t touch the body. Ellen was supposed to touch the body. She was supposed to be tender and vulnerable, she was certainly supposed to be crying. But Perry was covered in makeup. The morticians put makeup on all the dead bodies so they don’t look dead. Perry looked like a wax figure. Ellen had this awful memory of being in a wax museum as a kid. Once she remembered it, she couldn’t get it out of her head. So she closed her eyes and waited a respectable amount of time and then she got up and left the chapel.
The morning of the funeral, Ellen and her husband were brushing their teeth together when Ellen’s husband said, “I know you didn’t have an easy relationship with your father.” “Why do you say that?” Ellen asked, her mouth foaming with toothpaste. “Just based on the few things you’ve mentioned to me,” he replied. “I’m not going to pretend like I understand or anything. But if you want to talk about it, you know I’m here.”
“My dad and I had a fine relationship,” Ellen insisted.
Ellen’s husband shrugged. “I haven’t bought the tickets home yet. So if you want to stay for a couple more days, by all means, take the time you need.”
“No, we should get home. I’ve got to get back to work—”
“I’m sure they’d understand you needing more time off,” he interrupted. “I don’t want to stay here.”
Ellen’s husband’s father was a good man. He spoke carefully, cooked meatloaf and hand-kneaded biscuits for reunion dinners; he wore t-shirts on the weekends. Ellen had never seen her father in a t-shirt. Even when he died, he was wearing a freshly-steamed button-down.
“Do you want to practice the eulogy?” Ellen’s husband asked. “I could be like a test-audience.” Ellen had still not written anything down. “You know, I’m not sure I’m going to talk.” “You’re kidding,” Ellen’s husband spit his toothpaste into the sink. “What are you talking about? You told Sara you’d give the fucking eulogy. You can’t just blow that off.”
“I just don’t think I’d do a very good job,” Ellen said. Ellen’s husband kissed her on the cheek. “Ellen, whatever you have prepared—you’re a great writer. You’ll do a great job.” He wiped his wet hands on a towel. “Talk about those square-dances Perry took you to. I always liked hearing those stories.”
“My father was my hero. He taught me everything I know—discipline, loyalty.” Ellen was drunk in the church and everyone was listening. Her husband was sitting in the front pew with their daughter, a tense smile stretched across his face. Aunty Tram was rolling her eyes. “I owe all of my success to him.”
Ellen had not intended on getting drunk today. In fact, she had insisted on driving her husband and her daughter to the service. In fact, Ellen would say she was only barely drunk. “I’m only barely drunk,” she whispered into the pulpit’s microphone.
“Baby,” Ellen’s husband said. “Do you want to sit down?” Ellen shook her head. The movement threw her off balance and she stumbled, grabbing the pulpit for stability.
“I mention loyalty because Dad was as devoted as could be. Sara, I’ll never know why he picked you. His other girlfriends were much skinnier, and it took you a month to learn my name. But it doesn’t matter. When you two got married, he gave everything up for you. He really loved you.”
An hour ago, Ellen was panicking about her speech. Pacing around her old bedroom, she drank from a silver flask Perry had given to her for her 21st birthday. “My little girl is all grown up,” he had said. “Give your old man a hug, won’t you?”
Ellen was no longer panicking. She was completely calm. She thought she might be the calmest she had ever been in all her life, standing in front of these people. “And I mention discipline because that was Dad’s way. I’d get so mad at him for all the rules I had. He was so protective of me. But I know now that it was his way of loving me.”
“Baby, I really think you should sit down,” Ellen’s husband tried again.
Ellen persisted: “I’m not sure if Dad ever wanted kids—especially not a daughter. But he did his best raising me. All on his own, too. He taught me how to shoot a gun, stuck me in tennis lessons, paid my college tuition. I don’t want to sit down, I want to tell you a story.”
Ellen actually hated the church square-dances. She hated dressing up in the awkward dresses that would poof out around her knees. She hated the songs they played—volunteer violinists and fiddlers who swore they could’ve made it big if only they’d gotten out of this town. She hated the people there and the cheese smell that lingered in the humid air.
“Dad used to take me to these dances. It was like our father-daughter thing,” Ellen began. More than anything, she hated dancing with Perry.
“It was the only thing to do on a Friday night. All the other girls my age went with their dates. Of course, I wasn’t allowed to have a boyfriend.”
More than anything, she hated the way Perry gripped her waist when they danced. How he held fiercely onto her hand, so she couldn’t run away. How he pressed against her when the music slowed down. “You know I’ll never hurt you,” he would mutter into her ear.
She started resisting. She had too much homework to go out. She had a headache. She twisted her ankle falling off her bike. Perry never bought it. “I knew this day would come, when you got too cool for your own dad,” he’d say. “I already bought the tickets, so I guess that’s twenty fucking dollars down the drain.” They would fight.
“I’m sure everyone thought I was lame, dancing with my dad,” Ellen said. Perry always got his way. He’d yell until his face turned purple. He’d throw things—cups, flower vases, the cordless phone which broke into four pieces when it hit the wall. He’d tighten his hand around Ellen’s neck until she saw stars in the corners of her eyes.
Perry was dead now and Ellen was standing in front of a mass of people who loved him for his sense of humor and intelligence and dignity and honest work. Who only had fond memories of him. Who were sad he was gone, instead of relieved. She took a deep breath. “He was a good guy, my dad. And I guess that’s all I have to say.”