The light on the answering machine’s blinking again, and I know it’s a call from my father. He’s kept after me because we’ve been sloppy with our message: Hi, it’s Claire, [then Brad says], and Brad, and [our sons say together] Christopher and Thomas, [then we all chorus], leave a message! We should have left nothing but the number, in Brad’s voice, You’ve reached, four-one-six…
At first, Dad would just hang up. I hoped it was because he didn’t recognize my voice. There are two and a half million people in Toronto, and I’m not the only Claire Burford in the phonebook. I checked. I breathe in and press play. His monotone is measured as always.
Hi Claire, if this is you, which I’m pretty sure it is… It’s your father. Please call me.
I should have taken Brad’s name.
I left home a little more than ten years ago, 1976, which was about 1956 in Currie Township years. I had just turned eighteen and gotten my licence, and though Mom and Dad thought sixteen was too young for a girl to drive, they did let me work, at the MacKinnon County Public Library branch in Currie. Dad would drive us in from tiny Waubnakee and he’d putter around town for the length of my shift – except for the time he followed me inside and spent the four hours proving wrong what I’d said on the ride in. We had been speeding along County Road 17 in his Nova, running late because I’d gotten caught up in a book again.
“You’ll lose your head in those things,” Dad said.
“But they take you places you’d otherwise never go,” I said. “There is no frigate–”
“What’s a frigate?”
“It’s a boat, Dad – there is no frigate like a book, to take us lands away, nor any coursers like a page of prancing poetry.”
“You shouldn’t go anywhere unless you can afford it.”
My small laugh slipped out and I continued.
“This traverse may the poorest take, without oppress of toll…”
“Books are a waste of time.”
“What are you talking about?”
He took his eyes off the road and turned to me.
“As you know: time…”
I finished his sentence: “…is money.” But Dad wasn’t a stock trader or in business of any kind. In fact, as a cop, I doubt he’d ever had reason to say this. He must have heard it on TV. I’d never seen him read even a magazine.
“O.K.,” I said. “If books are so bad, why are there so many in schools?”
“Don’t know,” he said, smiling. “I was never much for school, either.”
“I bet you can’t even read,” I snapped.
He leaned over the steering wheel and narrowed his eyes. I slid toward my window. The engine’s pulse quickened and Dad said, “I’ll show you.” He brought the car to a jolting stop at the library, and instead of idling and letting me out on the street he swung into the parking lot and chose an angled spot. He opened his door and slammed it and led the way to the building. As I followed him in I gave a sheepish smile to Lori-Ann, my supervisor. As usual she didn’t look up from her reading, The Collected Emily Dickinson, again. I edged behind the counter while Dad walked to the first shelf he saw; alphabetically last but closest to the door. At random he pulled a hefty book from the middle and brought it to Lori-Ann.
“I’d like this one,” he said.
She sniffed and said, “Alright,” then marked her place with the checkout card – a practice she discouraged among patrons. She stood up and set the Dickinson on the chair. As she walked to the counter she said, “I just need to see your library card, please.”
“I don’t have one,” Dad said.
Lori-Ann reached beneath the counter for a form. She handed it to him.
“Fill this out,” she said. Her eyes darted back to Emily.
She sighed. “So you can check the book out. You can borrow it for a week, and you can renew it once if no one else is holding it.” I stifled a laugh. Other than Lori-Ann and me no one requested specific books. Even the schoolteachers made straight for Romance and Mystery, making off with armloads of books identical to each other, right down to the full-cover author photos on the backs.
“Nah, that’s O.K.,” my father said. “I’ll just read it here.” He held the book up so that I could see it past Lori-Ann: The Grapes of Wrath. “This one any good?” he asked, too loudly. Lori-Ann swallowed hard and glanced back at me before answering.
“Yes,” she said. “That’s a good one.”
My father leaned to one side to see past her. His smug eyes met mine.
“Well, what do you know,” he said. “Your ol’ Dad’s not so dumb after all.” He sat down at a table in the centre of the room and he stayed there long after Lori-Ann left, flipping the pages furiously until I told him it was time to shut the lights off. He was halfway through, at least. On the way home he asked if I had read it.
“Grade Eleven English,” I said. “Everyone has to.”
He smiled and said, “I must have missed that day.”
A silent moment passed before he asked, “How’s it turn out?”
“You’ll have to get to the end,” I said.
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