Issue Twenty-Three - Winter 2014

The Preacher’s Daughter

By J.C. Dickey-Chasins

April 1985
Tonganoxie, Kansas

O.K., gang, here’s an idea for a sitcom: my father, the best-known Methodist minister in our tiny town, slept with my best friend’s mom. Oh, yes—the woman who lives across the alley.

And he announced his transgression from the pulpit.

Right, I know, too outrageous, even for cable. Too dark, too humiliating for his fourteen-year-old daughter and loving wife. I mean, the hate boiling from my mother alone would power a small city. And the ick factor for his daughter and her friend, two innocents still shocked by Madonna’s “Like A Virgin” video.

Just too much.

So that’s my problem, you see. How to make hay out of real life. How to turn what I thought was my life into a soap opera so that I can survive somehow. I thought it was bad just being the preacher’s daughter. So what did I know?

And by the way: fuck God.
* * *

Jenny had the first hint. My super-oblivious best friend came home early from tennis practice, and there they were in the kitchen, fully dressed, of course, but too near each other and her mom looking slightly irritated (which, as a matter of fact, is how I remember Jenny’s mom most of the time). My dad—Rich Townsend to the rest of the town, or Pastor Rich—wore a polo shirt and jeans, which Jenny noticed because she rarely saw him out of a sports coat and tie.

“I was just helping your mom out,” my dad said.

“Oh,” Jenny said.

“With the art festival thing, you remember, hon?” Jenny’s mom said.

Jenny stared at her mom. The festival wasn’t until October—six months away. “Sure,” she said. She looked at my dad and, as she later told me, knew they were both lying. About what, or why, she didn’t know, exactly—just that the nervous uptick in her mom’s voice rarely surfaced, and then only when she was justifying a clothing purchase to Jenny’s dad.

And that was it. Jenny went upstairs and flipped on her cassette player. Sade’s “Smooth Operator” filled the room, and Jenny forgot about my dad and her mom—at least until a couple of Sundays later, when Dad did his explode-the-world-from-the-pulpit routine.
* * *

Somehow Mom and I stumbled through the congregation, out of the chapel, and into the station wagon. Let Dad find his own way home. Mom didn’t say a word as she drove, just tapped the steering wheel with her manicured nails, like a woodpecker gone astray.

Myself, I wanted to punch my dad, or even better, knee him. I knew from gym class that this was a most excellent way to hobble the male. Why hadn’t he taken an ad out in the Herald? Or better yet, put it on the newly constructed back-lit sign in front of Wesley Methodist? Why did he have to announce his stupidity from the pulpit? And how could I show my face the following morning? Everyone in the high school would know.

I was staring at the television as the coyote tried to blow up the roadrunner—again. It was so predictable. Unlike my life.

Mom was in the kitchen, clanking pans and pretending to clean. The front door opened.

“Hey, everyone,” Dad said.

What do you know—the prodigal father returns. Mom hurried into the living room.

“Go to your room, Tracy.”

I looked up. “Why?”

Dad appeared in the living room doorway, his eyes focused on Mom. “Listen, we need to talk.”

“Not yet,” Mom said tightly. “Tracy is just leaving.”

“No, I’m not,” I said.

“Do what your mother says,” Dad said.

He gave me a quick, dismissive glance, as if he’d forgotten he had a daughter. For a second I almost rebelled. Almost broke out of being the preacher’s daughter. But fourteen years of training had settled into my brain and refused to let go. Like a zombie, I rose and left.

Yet even a good girl like me must spy. Must. I sat in the hallway, just out of sight, knees pressed against my not-quite-there breasts, and listened.

“How could you?”

“Leslie, I’m sorry. I—”

“Sorry? You’re a preacher, Rich. A man of God. And to cheat on me with Nancy Adams.”

“I didn’t—”

“And then confess to the entire church. Before you tell me.” Mom began crying. No, snuffling and choking. Wet, thick anger. “Damn you, Rich.”

“Listen, hon, it’s over with her. We’ll get counseling. It’ll get better. I’ll—”

I heard a sharp, flat sound of flesh against flesh, and then Mom running out of the room. A second later the back door slammed. Dad sighed.

And what about me? Why didn’t they even spare a word for their only child? It was all about Mom and Dad, Dad and Mom. Fuck them.
* * *

I called Jen the minute I reached my bedroom. She sounded bad too, like the time a few years back when her grandma had died and she hadn’t left her room for a week. We decided to meet at the pond.

I left my bedroom and cruised through the living room. No Dad. I found Mom sitting in the rocker on the patio. I told her where I was going without looking at her. She said nothing, so I turned to leave.

“Tracy.” Her voice was quiet and controlled.

I stopped and faced her. Now what?

“Did he ever—well, did you know anything? Did he say anything?”

I just stared at her. Her right hand rose in a vague, weak gesture, as if she was trying to grab something that she couldn’t quite see. “About—me? Or her?”

Ah yes, Mom and Dad—like two ships in deep fog, relying on poor sight and yelling into the dark instead of using radar and charts. What was I? The telephone? As if Dad would tell me anything about what he had been doing. As if I cared.

“He doesn’t talk to me. Just like you.” I turned and left.
* * *

It was one of those late April Sundays when the leaves are just emerging and the new grass is so green it seems to glow. It had rained Friday afternoon, but now the ground was dry enough to sit on. I found a spot near the edge, under a cottonwood.

Jenny appeared a few minutes later. She threw her bike on the ground next to mine. Her eyes were red and bleary, with a smudge of mascara arcing toward her left temple. She settled beside me.

“This sucks,” she said.

“Yep.”

“Why’d your dad do that? Telling the whole church?”

I shook my head. “Maybe he thinks it makes him better, somehow.”

Jenny sighed. “My mom didn’t say anything, just went into the bathroom and locked the door.”

“What about your dad?”

“Flipped out.” She turned to me. “He said I knew. He called me a liar.”

“Man.” I didn’t know what to say. The situation was like a sinkhole, getting wider and deeper each time you moved. If you didn’t run away, it sucked you down.

She sniffled. “Why did he think I knew?”

“He was just guessing,” I said, trying to sound confident. But she was right, it was weird. Why would he think Jen knew anything? Mr. Taylor drank a lot. Maybe he was drunk.

“This is so fucked,” she said.

“Yeah. Makes me want to run off.”

Jen glanced up. “Maybe we should.”

“Really?” I had just been talking to say something, not really meaning it.

“Yeah,” she said. “Just get out of this stupid town. You know everyone’s going to be talking about us tomorrow. How can we even get through lunch period?”

I nodded. She was right, it would be an endless day of whispers and passed notes and stifled giggles as we neared our so-called friends. I felt queasy just thinking about it.

She leaned forward, her face animated. “I’ve got close to a hundred dollars saved up. We could just get on the bus and go somewhere.”

“Where?”

Jen shrugged. “Wichita. Kansas City. Just big and away.”

I heard my mom’s worried voice in my head. “What would we do there?”

“Get jobs. Run around. I’m fifteen next month, Tracy. Places are always looking for help.”

Just leave. It was so clean, so simple. Let Mom and Dad drag each other down, let Mr. and Mrs. Taylor fight it out. Without me and Jen.

“But what’ll they do if they catch us?”

Jen sniffed. “Our parents are too busy fucking up their lives to notice.”

I thought for a few seconds. What the hell. I was damned anyway. “Let’s do it. I have about fifty bucks in my room. I can get some more from the grocery jar in the kitchen.”

And thus our great adventure began.
* * *

Except it didn’t. Apparently Mom realized we were gone and freaked out. Two cops picked us up at the Lawrence bus station and stuck us in an interview room until she showed up. Total distance travelled: 14.5 miles, via a hitched ride from a bored beer truck driver who probably figured he was getting lucky with some naïve underage girls.

The most annoying thing about the trip home—well, except for the fact that we had been caught—was Mom’s questions, coming so fast that they ran together, questions that did not expect answers: Were you meeting someone in Lawrence? What did you buy? Are you on drugs? Did you hitch a ride? Is that Simpson boy involved somehow? Did you run away because of what Daddy did? Was this your idea (it must have been, Jen would never do this)? Did you call Daddy? What did he say?

I closed my eyes and let the air conditioner push slightly stale, cool air over my face. Jen sat in the back seat (where I wished I was), talking only when Mom directed a question at her. Which, of course, wasn’t often.

The sum total of our “escape”: forty dollars spent on tickets; two cherry Cokes; and a snapshot of Jen staring out the bus window, watching the grassland go by.

The wages of my escape were more significant: grounded for a month, no allowance, and the threat (as yet unrealized) of a visit to a “counselor” to talk about my “issues.” And—naturally—even more notoriety at school. Jen and I were officially “bad girls.” All the weirdo guys started lurking around our lockers.

In the meantime, Dad began moving out. He started on a Saturday morning, of course—never on the Sabbath. Mom locked herself in the guest bedroom downstairs. The two of them yelled back and forth through the cheap hollow-core door, and then he stomped upstairs, muttering some very unpastorlike words.

Oh yeah. You’re probably wondering if Pastor Dad apologized to me for his unpastorlike behavior.

Are you kidding?

I slouched on the loveseat in the living room, letting the worn, overstuffed cushions envelop me. I wasn’t hiding, exactly, but I wasn’t announcing myself either. I felt like one of those omniscient narrators from an 1880s novel—floating above the chaos, seeing everything.

That’s how I happened to hear the click as my mother unlocked the bedroom door and then the creak of subflooring as she went down the hall to the kitchen. I heard something metallic, not a rattle but a sharp sound, as if an item was being removed from a close-fitting case.

Then there was no sound other than the gentle whoosh of the central air and an occasional bump from Dad upstairs. I shifted, orienting myself toward the kitchen, curious. What was she doing in there? Had she slipped outside?

Then her voice began. I couldn’t make out what she was saying, so I rose and crept down the hallway, keeping my feet flat and even so the boards would not announce me. I paused at the entryway, staying back so she couldn’t see me.

“God, please forgive me.” Her voice was scarcely more than a whisper, raspy from crying. “I have tried to obey, to do as you wished. As you command. I—” She broke off into a round of sniffling.

I slid down and sat, back pressed against the wall. I was such a creep, eavesdropping on my mother. But I couldn’t stop listening.

“I can’t rid my mind of it—of him, and her. God, can’t you help me? Can’t you—” Another round of sniffling. “Are you even there? Just give me a sign. A reason. Why I should stay. Just…something.”

And then it was there once more, the metallic sound, as if something had scraped against the stainless steel sink. The water came on and ran for a few seconds, then stopped. She let out a tired sigh.

“Just one damned sign. Oh God.”

Then a sharp in-breath and another sigh. This time she seemed almost relieved. As if maybe God had really spoken to her. Again I heard the in-drawn breath and the sigh. It was nearly sexual. My curiosity was too much. I edged to the corner and peered around.

Mom sat on a stool facing the sink, her elbows resting on the edge and her forearms in the sink. Her head tipped forward, as if she were praying. When her right hand rose, I saw the blood.
* * *

So you’re thinking that this is better than a sitcom. The mom tries to off herself, but unbeknownst to her, the daughter intervenes, rattling the expected chain of events. In short, fucks everything up. But wait—she’s really an angel in disguise!

Mom spent two days in the hospital—she managed to lose a fair amount of blood from those two knife cuts—then was transferred to a private psychiatric hospital in Topeka so famous I needn’t name it. During her time in the hospital, Dad visited her just once.

Home really sucked. Dad put off moving out, at least until Mom came back. But he wasn’t really around. Jen said her mom was gone a lot too, so my guess was the two adulterers found a place to carry on. Jen and I were really tight, even more than before. We were like the last two survivors of a tsunami, standing on the desolate shore and wondering if there would be one final wave—cleansing and completely destructive.

I read somewhere that writers basically sit down at a keyboard, then open their veins—that’s how they get a good story. So maybe my mom wasn’t trying to kill herself after all. Maybe she couldn’t say what was happening to her, what she was feeling—but she could show it by cutting her wrists. Talking by other means.

Or maybe she was trying to kill herself.

Occam’s razor. Ha-ha.

Me, I would rather she had killed Dad. You’d think a man who had embarrassed and humbled himself in front of his congregation would lie low for a while. Nope. And don’t forget I’m the preacher’s daughter. It was bad enough before he went public with his asshole-ness.

About two weeks after Mom went into the clinic, he called me into the dining room. He wore his “serious and consoling” face, the one he used at funerals and youth group sex-ed classes.

“Tracy,” he said. “You know things aren’t good between your mother and me.”

Big understatement. I stared back, refusing to give him even the slightest hint of empathy.

“Ahem. Well.” He glanced down, suddenly fascinated with his fingernails. After a few seconds, he looked up. “So I’ve filed for a divorce.”

“What?” I couldn’t help myself.

“I don’t see anything getting better. Your mother, well…”

“She’s in a hospital, Dad. She’s sick. Because of you.”

“Not because of me,” he said sharply. “She’s always been unstable. Delicate.”

I wanted to slap him. But I also felt a prick of doubt. Was my mom a nutcase? No. He was making excuses. Right.

“I want to do the right thing,” he said. “For both of you.”

“You’re just a liar. Not a preacher.” I jumped up and ran out the front door.
* * *

Jen was sitting in the tire swing that hung from the maple in her back yard. She glanced up. I could tell that she already knew.

“It just keeps getting worse.” I sat down, Indian-style, in the grass. Her feet dangled nearby. When we were younger, I would pull her back as far as I could, holding onto her ankles, then let her go. The swing would wobble and twist, tossing her in every direction. We loved it.

She nodded. “It’s like I want to cry all the time, but I can’t.”

“I want to punch him in the balls.”

She giggled. “Pastor Squeaky.”

I laughed. It felt weird and good. If we could only keep making fun of our stupid parents.

“What about your mom and dad?”

Her face darkened. She shrugged. “He’s staying at the Comfort Inn. Not a good sign, huh? Mom’s on the phone to Grandma all the time.”

“What if my dad married your mom? We’d be stepsisters.”

She grimaced. “Gross.”

“Yeah.” I sighed. “Plus I’d never see you.”

“Why?”

“Mom. You think she’d let me be around Dad now?”

“Yeah.” She gazed wistfully at the canopy of leaves. “It’s like they have all this power to totally change our lives, and they’re not even thinking about us.”

I pressed my palms flat against the ground, feeling the solidity of the earth, how thick and stable it was. Just dirt and grass and far below, layers of rock and water and oil. Not a thing to do with the stupid people who walked and drove on it. Just there.

Jen cleared her throat. I glanced up to find her staring at me.

“What?”

“You were getting spacey,” she said.

“I was thinking about dirt.”

She blinked, then giggled. “You’re weird.”

“You’re weird.”

I threw some grass on her feet. She kicked and her sandal went flying. I jumped up, grabbed the tire rope, and pulled back as far as I could, then let go.

She soared back and forth, laughing and screaming.
* * *

So how does this sitcom end? Does Pastor Rich find forgiveness from his wife and flock? Do Tracy’s parents reconcile? Do Jen and I remain friends? That’s certainly how I’d script it for ABC. Teaching moments would abound. I would learn how complex the adult world is. Mom and Dad would rekindle their marriage. Birds would sing. I’d find God again.

Yeah, right.

My dad decided I was suddenly an “adult” and could handle anything he threw at me. He got his divorce, lost his job, and promptly moved to Kansas City to begin his life as a swinging single. And yes—without Jen’s mom. Imagine that.

After her stay in the clinic, Mom, for some unfathomable reason, pivoted hard toward God—not my dad’s God, but one of those gods that makes you speak in tongues and writhe on the floor. She quit wearing makeup and set about making my life even weirder. The only thing worse than being the divorced preacher’s kid is being the fanatical religious nut’s kid.

Jen’s mom sold their house after their divorce and moved them to an apartment complex near the high school. I went over a few times. It was so depressing. Dirty windows, water-starved bushes surrounding a concrete courtyard. Jen smokes now.

I’ve got a bag packed. It’s in the crawlspace under my room. When I get to a hundred dollars, I’m gone.

Copyright 2014 Dickey-Chasins

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