Day One. Alone in a crowded student lounge, I waited for the Santa Barbara Writers Conference to convene. Other would-be authors filed in. Most meandered toward the registration table. Some relaxed in overstuffed chairs. Avoiding eye contact, shoulders tensed, I scanned the room for familiar faces. Did they know Dad? Is that one of his students? Will anyone remember me? I didn’t know if I was trying to outrun my history — or catch up with it.
I’d grown up in Santa Barbara and then moved away. I hadn’t returned in the ten years since my parents had died. Dad was a local hero. He’d taught at this conference for twenty years. He’d also published five books, authored 500 newspaper columns, and taught creative writing to 7,000 Santa Barbarans.
In the meantime, I had limped through high school and college, then dabbled in the careers of school librarian, fashion designer, hotel manager, university counselor, and hospital administrator. I’d resigned from the last position to become a writer.
Along the way, there were clues to an eventual love affair with the written word. As an undergrad, I preferred the essay question to the multiple-choice, the term paper to the final exam. Graduate school brought insight and the stirrings of a voice. My first research paper earned an A+ from my MA adviser. He added the comment, “You don’t know how good you are.” I flirted with prose in every job: sculpted memos into works of art, transformed newsletters into novels, reviewed dance productions for the hometown paper, and even proofed copy for classifieds. But I didn’t notice the pattern. Like a haughty cheerleader pursued by the captain of the chess team, I didn’t know writing existed until the day I ran away with it.
I quit my job to follow in Dad’s footsteps. He would have disapproved.
I’m forty-one. After sojourns in Portland, St. Louis, and Minneapolis, I’ve landed in Kansas City. I’ve found the perfect job and call my parents to share the news.
“Dad, guess what?” He barely gets in a “Hi, Tootie,” before I launch into my story. I pause for his congratulations.
He coughs from advancing lung disease. “I don’t know why you keep quitting, but this job sounds good. I guess you’re failing up.”
I laugh along with him, but my cheeks burn, because I can’t tell if he’s praising me or mocking me.
CNN drones behind his wheezing.
Day Two. The leader of the morning workshop — a Fred Astaire type — stacked papers and books on a table at the front of the room. He wore sharply creased trousers and a crisp oxford shirt, with a cardigan draped across his shoulders. After introducing himself to the class, he strolled toward me. I averted my gaze from his face to the floor. His loafers advanced, stopping just opposite my sandals. I peeked at his knees. Then, raising my gaze and my courage, glanced at his belt buckle, and finally looked into his eyes.
He took my hand in both of his. “They told me you were coming. Your papa was a dear, dear friend. I miss him.”
The breath I was holding escaped in a sigh. “Thank you. So do I.”
I’m twenty-eight, home for the holidays. My teenaged sister and I are feuding. She sweeps past me to greet other family members with effusive air kisses. Wherever she stands, she turns her back to me. Her haughtiness reduces me from career woman to schoolyard victim.
After a day of toughing it out, I confide in Dad. We stand outside the front door. The night-blooming jasmine he’d planted along the driveway gleams in the moonlight. I tell him I’d rather spend Christmas with friends than endure that little shit’s silent treatment.
“I wish you’d stay,” he says. “You’re not a quitter. I don’t call you Snake Bite for nothing.”
It’s the only time he’s called me Snake Bite.
He opens the door to encourage me back into the house. The scents of pine and cinnamon fill the living room. Seduced by this flirtation with his approval, I follow Dad inside and stay for Christmas.
Day Three. I broke the silence.
Other writers read their work aloud and bore up under the critiques. Their hands shook and their voices halted, while I hunkered down in the back of the room.
They’ll find out I’m a fraud.
I imagined Dad’s colleague embarrassed to discover his dear friend’s daughter had no talent. When Mr. Fred Astaire read my name from his sign-up sheet, I interpreted his wry smile and the ironic lilt in his voice as we’ll just see what you can do, missy.
I stood in front of the class and read an essay. The group was supposed to offer suggestions, but no one spoke. I looked up from the page. They applauded. I gasped. It seemed polite to murmur thank you, but I wanted the clapping to stop. Surely I’d get into trouble for breaking some rule.
The teacher held up his copy of my composition. “You see,” he said in that same clever tone, an eyebrow raised. “She did everything I told you to do in creative nonfiction.”
I did? How did that happen?
The afternoon session had already begun by the time I located it on the sprawling campus. At first the room looked empty. The chairs had been pushed back against the walls, forming a semi-circle that faced a stool labeled the Hot Seat. One after another, participants perched there while they read a work-in-progress and listened to their colleagues’ evaluations.
The facilitator directed the proceedings from behind a bare wooden desk. Reading glasses perched halfway down her nose emphasized her deadpan expression. After the class discussed chapter one of a memoir and the latest draft of a how-to manual, she tapped her roster with a pencil. “Dawn Downey is next.”
Oh no, not me. My face grew hot and my hands cold, but I clutched my papers and stood.
I’m twenty. I stand at the sink, washing dishes. Dad sits at the kitchen table. He slouches in the chair with his legs stretched out. His size-twelve feet block the doorway. He studies my report card, which he holds in one hand, and then looks at me over his glasses. “You’re failing.”
“No I’m not. They’re Cs, not Fs.”
“Watch your mouth.” His voice is low. It rumbles through the kitchen like a herd of buffalo stampeding over the plains.
I scour away at nonexistent grime in a skillet until Dad stalks out of the room.
The Hot Seat vibrated with menace. I willed my rubbery legs to move and crossed the expanse as though wading through waist-high mud. When I reached the middle of the room, a booming voice broke the silence.
“Dawn Downey? Bill’s daughter? We lived up the street when you were in high school.”
I turned to locate the source. A shout from the opposite corner rang out. “Bill’s daughter? God, I loved that old man. I took his class six times.”
The instructor frowned. She took off her spectacles. “Downey. I should have recognized the name. Your dad is the reason I’m here.”
They converged on me. They hugged and patted and kissed. Their affection quelled internal voices that criticized and second-guessed. After cowering in the shadows for a lifetime, I basked in this newfound celebrity.
Order was restored, and I took my place on the Hot Seat. When I finished my recitation, someone yelled out, “You can’t stop there. I’ve got to know what happens next.”
The instructor held up her hand to prevent me from responding. “You’ll just have to buy her book. Excellent work.”
Maybe I could be a writer.
I’m eighteen. Dad drops me off at the Greyhound station. The brick building looms in front of me like Mount Doom. A bus labeled “Los Angeles” idles nearby. Exhaust blackens the air and stings my lungs.
I’m returning to college after a weekend at home spent begging my parents to let me quit. When they refuse, I plea bargain for a year off, and then a semester.
College life suffocates me. The co-ed dorms force me into unwanted intimacy with men I don’t know. Stodgy literature professors suck the energy from Hemingway. The social pressure cooker that is 1970s Affirmative Action pits privileged white students from the suburbs against un-privileged black students from the inner city. As a middle class black girl, I’m trapped between the two factions.
Dad sends me back to a world where I’m lost, but his eyes are misty when he kisses me goodbye.
His tears embarrass me, as though I’ve accidentally seen him naked.
Day Four. I strained to hear my neighbor’s voice above the din in the crowded cafeteria. Three of us had walked to lunch together and grabbed places at one end of a rectangular table. A group of conference staff — judging from the number of people vying for their attention — took seats at the opposite end. Isolated phrases broke through the surrounding racket. “… sales figures for my book.” “… find the time to write my column.” “… have to call my agent back.” They represented everything I aspired to be. Popular, polished, published.
One of them picked up her chair and squeezed it in beside mine. “If it wasn’t for your father, I wouldn’t be a writer.”
We sat knee to knee. As she leaned toward me, the noisy room receded. There was only the intensity of her gaze and the sweetness of her memory.
“When I came here as a student,” she said, “I was scared to death. I took your dad’s workshop because I heard he was friendly. On the last day, he asked, ‘When are we going to hear from you?’ I was too nervous to read my own work, but he talked me into it. I walked to the front of the room, shaking, close to tears. He leaned over and whispered, ‘You’re safe here.’ And he held my hand while I read.”
I was spellbound. Our mingled breath held her story aloft like a feather. As it floated away, she rose and returned to her group and the anonymity of clanking plates and pealing laughter.
He held her hand while she read.
A stranger had just revealed that my father was Superman, and his secret power was tenderness. Maybe, if I’d known his identity before he’d died, Superman would have held my hand, too.
I’m sixteen. Dad and I sit with his boss, the editor of the Santa Barbara NewsPress. Our three chairs form a tight circle.
I propose an article for the paper: race relations among high school students. I rattle off prospective interview questions for my classmates. I read my synopsis, stumbling over the power of the two men beside me. Intimidation halts my speech. Excitement propels me.
The editor nods while I talk. He smiles at me, then turns to Dad. “What do you think, Bill?”
Dad folds his hands in his lap. “I wish I’d heard about it before now.” His words press in on my chest.
My heart races. “Sorry, Dad.” I study my feet. “Sorry.”
I feel him next to me like a rock face I can’t possibly scale.
The editor’s comments drift by. “Flesh it out.” “Meet again.” They grow fainter as the room fades away and I disappear.
Day Five. Dad’s former students caught up with me as I entered buildings, emerged from restrooms, and strolled down walkways. Messengers from my father, they shared the words of encouragement he’d written across their manuscripts. Some had continued to meet for a decade after Dad’s death, reserving an empty seat for him at the head of the table. They recited his pithy advice. “Take more risks.” “Write outrageously.” They repeated phrases unfamiliar to my ears. “I’m proud of your progress.” “Just incredible.” They unveiled my inheritance: Dad’s Technicolor self-portrait, which I’d only seen in shades of gray.
I’m ten years old, lying in the bow of his cabin cruiser. We’ve been fishing, just the two of us. He sits on the deck smoking his pipe. Vin Scully is calling a Dodgers game on the radio. Mosquitoes buzz. Lightning bugs flicker. The river rocks me to sleep.
Day Six. I juggled a plate of fruit and a glass of orange juice as I navigated around the buffet table at the closing brunch. Luggage and tote bags left little space for walking. The ballroom resounded with shouted compliments and promises to email. There were flurries of exchanged business cards.
After finishing the meal, we settled in for the awards ceremony. Every announcement of someone else’s accomplishment felt like a personal failure. From disappointment I descended into guilt, for my lack of generosity. The inner turmoil distracted me, until the sound of the family name yanked my attention back. “… Downey … first prize … creative nonfiction.” A table mate poked me in the ribs, while another squeezed my shoulders, assuring me I’d heard correctly. I grinned so hard my cheeks hurt as I made my way to the stage.
I’m six years old. Dad sits on the step stool in the kitchen, holding a jar of pickled pigs’ feet. I climb onto his lap. His big arms surround me as he reaches into the jar and offers me a bite. The tangy taste plays hopscotch on my tongue. Dad grins. I swing my legs.
When I reached the stage, the conference founder presented me with a certificate and kissed me on the forehead. I read my winning essay aloud at the pace of chocolate melting in my mouth. I savored this bit of success at the craft my dad loved. The spotlight’s glow made up for all the years I’d felt invisible. When I took my bow, students whom my father had encouraged and teachers he had taught applauded my achievement. They nodded their approval. Invisible arms wrapped around me and I knew Dad’s hand held mine.
I’m fifty-four. My father beams. “Incredible, Snake Bite, just incredible.”