My coffee is burnt and too hot to drink but I take a sip anyway, because it’s a matter of minutes before it cools to the temperature of a cashed bowl deserted on a windowsill. It’s a matter of hours before my Bluetooth headphones start interrupting my womp-womp indie folk to beep-boop about how I’ve drained the battery. The tops of my hands are so dry they’re cracking, on the verge of splitting open. Everything is always on the verge of something else.
A stocky man with a salt-and-pepper beard walks in with what looks like a middle schooler’s backpack slung over one shoulder. He surveys the room and issues a cheerful “Good morning!” The girl with the pink highlights mumbles a reply. A few people shift in their chairs, avoiding eye contact, while I glare kidney stones from the corner. Is salt-and-pepper hair the only thing that reminds me of my dad? He went half-gray before his thirtieth birthday. When I forget to shave my head every two weeks, I remember I’m my father’s daughter.
This is the second day of jury duty. I’m Juror 861. All of us are on edge; all of us are in between. Yesterday, Jurors 86 and 859 were called in the last group. For nine hours, I didn’t leave my plastic seat except to go to the bathroom.
Actually, folk music reminds me of my dad, too. This music in my headphones—the only soundtrack that’s appropriate for drab little rooms lined with ransacked vending machines, stripped bare by fluorescent lights. It’s the updated version of what he used to play on his guitar, downstairs in his den while I was falling asleep, gentle acoustics floating up through the heat vents like stray feathers from my pillow: Harry Chapin; Simon & Garfunkel; Peter, Paul and Mary; John Denver; Gordon Lightfoot. All my favorite songs fall into this genre; all declare something simple and gutting like “Scott & Zelda” by Tiny Victories: That’s how it goes—I guess it’s all right. You have something, then you lose it for the rest of your life.
My sister and I have a running joke called Potato Dad. It’s not clever or creative—it’s exactly how it sounds. It’s comparing our dad to a potato, because potatoes don’t do much. They just sit there like sad little lumps, growing soft and wrinkly.
I read a whole book yesterday, sitting here in this room. I was so bored it made me angry—the fury of inertia, blanks expecting to be filled. I scribbled hateful notes all over the pages. I left my headphones on even when they started beep-booping, even when they turned themselves off. I refused to make eye contact with anyone, even when I could tell they were craving it.
“Not my circus. Not my monkeys.” That’s what my mom would say. I haven’t spoken to her in years. I understand why I can’t call her—there are too many wounds that can’t remember how to be regular skin. But I don’t understand why I can’t call my dad. There are no wounds. Or maybe that’s the wound: that hollow place, that lack.
The old man with the thick wooden cane is back today. He limps over to the table next to mine and sets his Smithsonian grocery bag gently on the tile floor. He drapes his highlighter-yellow jacket over the back of a chair, then pulls it out carefully as if he’s determined to not wake a baby, moving his arms the way you move them when you’re carrying a very hot, very full cup of coffee down the hall.
I can see him, my dad, bright-eyed, explaining the solution to this very hot, very full cup of coffee scenario. “I have a special trick for that. Do you want to know the special trick?”
When you’re growing up, Potato Dad leaves the feelings and the fighting and the discipline to your mom. Potato Dad stays out of the way. He works a lot because your mom doesn’t and because it’s his duty to provide. He comes home late and locks himself in his den, where he plays his guitar or reads biographies of presidents and war heroes or flies simulated airplanes on his computer. Potato Dad is like the bystander effect: he’s not contributing to the crime, but he’s not doing anything to stop it, either.
A black athletic shirt stretches over the old man’s potbelly, tucked snug into his khaki pants. He’s wearing an expensive watch. He unscrews a disposable plastic water bottle, the kind that always ends up in the gutter or a filthy stream or teetering on top of an overstuffed garbage can on a busy street corner downtown. He takes a grateful gulp and opens a library book, all of it crinkling like my great-grandmother’s furniture.
Actually, mustaches remind me of my dad, too. I’ve never seen him without one. Generally I feel hard toward men, closed off and skeptical, but a mustache makes me soft. A mustache on an old man makes me want to weep and look away and pretend there is no such thing as old men with mustaches or fathers with daughters or daughters who renounce their fathers or fathers who hardly notice when it happens.
Everything is always on the verge of something else. Before he was Potato Dad, my dad was a romantic, a dreamer, a creative. He taught himself guitar. He won a song-writing competition. He double-majored in Spanish and German at Georgetown and then he went to business school and then he sold truck parts for the rest of his life.
You Won’t, “Realize”: Wasn’t I gonna be digging up hidden treasure, instead of burying change in the mud?
Yesterday, after checking in, I rode the elevator with the old man. “First time?” he asked, smiling mildly, like we were reading a script. “What gave it away?” I played along, gesturing around at my bulky headphones and my shaved head and my combat boots. He chuckled like I’d given him a delightful little gift, a stocking stuffer or one of those Precious Moments statuettes.
My dad was summoned for jury duty when I was a kid. His boss told him to get out of it no matter what he had to do, and it would have been easy—the plaintiff or the defendant was a former client of my dad’s; they had worked together in some capacity. But the judge asked if that would affect my dad’s ability to be objective in the case, and my dad shrugged and told the truth: “No.”
Later, when the old man caught my eye and waved at me from across the room, I pretended not to see. When they dismissed us for lunch and he stopped in front of my table, I pretended to be immersed in something on my laptop. When they sent us home for the day, when he waited and waited until I gathered my belongings and I had no choice but to remove my dead headphones, I swallowed back the sadness trying to inch its way up through my mouth, like a glass stem lodged in my throat.
My dad didn’t go in too hard for emotional expression, but he cried every year on Christmas Eve when we watched It’s a Wonderful Life and Harry Bailey gives the toast at the end: “To my big brother, George—the richest man in town!” He cried when he got the call that his own dad was dying of lung cancer, and he cried when I sealed myself in the bathroom after the first time I tried to kill myself. He unlocked the sliding door with the butt of a nail clipper and collapsed on the tile floor gulping down loud, wet sobs, and I stepped over him carefully and hid in my closet instead.
“How was it? How was your first day?” the old man asked me, with a smile. “Boring,” I replied, without one. He stepped into the elevator and held the door for me. I replaced my headphones and took the stairs.
Typhoon, “Artificial Light”: I was told that I’d grow up to be myself. I thought I would get bigger, too.
When you think about Potato Dad, you mostly think about absence, which isn’t necessarily fair. He can’t cook, but he can make you “eggie toastie”: scrambled eggs, white toast with butter on the side. He can show you how to make mac and cheese from a box: After you drain the noodles, leave them in the colander in the sink and put the pot back on the stove. Turn the heat as low as it can go and drop in the butter. When it starts to melt, add the powdered cheese and a little bit of milk. Mix it up nice and smooth before you reunite it with the noodles—it’ll be cheesier, he swears. Potato Dad is there at all the important events: your softball games, your piano recitals, your high-school graduation. He smiles for the camera, but only with his mouth.
The song that won the competition is “The Master,” which requires a lot of intricate fingerpicking and recounts a tale of love lost to ambition. But my favorite of my dad’s originals is “Doc’s Lament.” It’s about an old man who owns a coffee shop and tries to engage his younger patrons in conversation, but pretty much no one is interested. I click on my dad’s Spotify page and stare at the “>1,000 monthly listeners.” I play this song over and over, and I think about how I see the old man from jury duty everywhere, how I can’t look him in the eye. He’s been emptied out by the years; he’s a fallen pine that made a racket none of us heard. He’s retired and alone and no one asks him what he thinks anymore and now he’s just waiting to die.
I can see him, my dad, dignified, voted foreman of his jury. He’s safe from his boss for weeks, relaying stories from the case every night at the dinner table, face lighting up like he’s performing an encore.
Frightened Rabbit, “Poke”: You should look through some old photos—I adored you in every one of those.
I cringe to confess it, but the glass in my throat that grieves for the elderly is heterosexist. Old women, I assume, have always known no one cares what they think. Old women are like my mom: hard and mean and far more resilient than their aging husbands could ever hope to be. What kind of duty do daughters owe their mothers, their fathers? My parents are old and getting older. “Not my circus. Not my monkeys.”
I have failed, again and again, at being the correct kind of mother’s daughter. That’s why I haven’t talked to my dad in years, either—he couldn’t stand for it. Or he wouldn’t. Or what’s the difference? I was expecting the call because I had just had my first essay published—finally, something to push our relationship into greater depths. Look, Dad, we are both artists. But he talked at me as if I were still the teenager who slammed their door so many times my mom took it off its hinges, as if I were still ruled by my hysterical amygdala. Everything is always on the verge of something else, but that doesn’t mean it always gets there.
It’s strange to be stuck in this room for so long with people I’ll never see again, all of us having nothing to do with one another. Like this guy in the blue polo shirt, sitting directly across from me—he doesn’t appear to be doing anything besides staring at the wall. He’s not even scrolling through his phone or sipping from his Nalgene. He’s just sitting there like he’s resigned himself to exactly how everyone’s life turns out: all these arbitrary collisions. I try to memorize his face, but I know I wouldn’t recognize him on the street.
Were there real moments, between the two of us? There must have been. I suppose it matters that he taught me how to drive before I was old enough, in his station wagon in the empty parking lot next to the Sears, and how to play both parts of “Heart and Soul” on the piano at the same time, and that an apple is nature’s toothbrush. I must have made him laugh, once or twice. He must have shared some fatherly wisdom more helpful than “Red sky at night, sailor’s delight; red sky in morning, sailors take warning” and “She’s the only mother you’ve got.” There may have been something true, some deeper access point, unlocked in old board games such as Stratego, in how delighted he was that time I chased one of his top dogs around the field with a mere scout and he found out I’d been bluffing. “That’s exactly how you have to play this game,” he kept saying, chuckling and grinning, over the moon, perhaps the proudest I ever saw him.
When things are looking bleak, Potato Dad says something like, “You just gotta have faith.” During the whole four years you’re in college, he calls just once to ask, earnestly, “So, how’s the bulimia?” He pronounces it bew-LEEM-ee-uh. When he’s nearing retirement, he sends group emails containing photos of the mechanic’s workshop he organized: everything in its right place. Potato Dad rarely gets angry or particularly joyful. Sometimes he seems sad, but he can’t put his finger on it, so neither can you. Mostly he sits and stares. Mostly he’s unbothered.
I didn’t realize, when I started writing it, that this was an essay about my dad. Everything is always on the verge of something else. On the phone that night, grown a full decade out of teenage tantrums, I became hysterical. I hurled my Android across the room, the screen cracked, I never spoke to him again, and I’m still not sure what, exactly, it is we’ve both lost.
Jess Williamson, “Snake Song”: Bind your mother’s name to your two wrists, and feel your father’s strength in your lover’s kiss.
What kind of duty does a father owe his daughter? My mother’s name is old-world Italian, like all my features, but it’s been years since I mistook my father for strong. I don’t believe in men protecting their families. I don’t believe in gender roles or “blood is thicker than water,” so I guess what that leaves is: not much.
My number is never called. Neither is the old man’s. When the announcement comes over the loudspeaker that we are all permanently dismissed, everyone files out of the room but the two of us. “Are you a writer for a living?” he asks me, sheepishly, like he’s expecting me to give him the finger. I almost choke on the glass and it’s not even there, so I tell him I am. I tell him I’ve been working for an insurance magazine for six years, but I’m about to return to school to get a degree in creative writing. He tells me he worked for an insurance company his whole life. He tells me his daughter went to school in Utah. “She was an athlete,” he explains, standing up a little straighter. “No debt.”
Maybe my dad should have been a diplomat or a history professor or a writer of biographies. Maybe my dad should have remained a bachelor, giving cheap guitar lessons and eating cold pizza for breakfast. Maybe I should never have been born. Maybe this skinny life is as happy as my dad could hope to get, but maybe some other life would have suited him better. Maybe my dad is a lonely soul. Maybe loneliness feels better on some of us than others. Maybe happiness is not the pinnacle we all believe it to be.
I wonder whether the old man would have thought about his daughter today if he hadn’t run into me. It’s not easy to bear the way your parents see you, but I could never bear the weight of a child, the expectations folding in on themselves, the inevitable betrayal.
Jim Croce, “Operator”: Let’s forget about this call. There’s no one there I really wanted to talk to.
In the foyer, they call the old man’s number for processing: 841. They call my number directly after, which feels like a strange coincidence. We will be paid twelve dollars for each day of our service: a total of twenty-four. “Don’t spend it all in one place,” the voice on the loudspeaker jokes—a regular Potato Dad. Everyone laughs gratefully. It’s the middle of the day, so there is no traffic on the drive home.
I wonder whether my dad ever thinks about me. I wonder whether he talks about me to strangers he meets at jury duty, at church, in line at the grocery store. Most people assume I don’t have a relationship with my parents because I’m queer, and every time I don’t correct them, every time I call myself an orphan and wax poetic about chosen family, I feel ashamed and unmoored, like I’ve committed a crime.
The special trick for the very hot, very full cup of coffee is this: Look up, away from what you’re holding, and walk normally. Move forward as if you’re not holding anything at all.
Listen to Jax Connelly's playlist for "Duty" here.