Dad has these big plastic cups he gets at Bi-Mart. He fills them to the brim with crushed—never cubed—ice before he pours his tea and meanders back to his office to either watch the big game or stare at depressing climate change statistics on Twitter. He chews on the ice when he’s in thought or between tasks. Mom often purses her lips and shakes her head because the ice machine makes this awful grinding noise and Dad has a bad habit of getting it when other people are in the middle of polite conversation. She is a little smug when his tendencies seem to have pushed the poor thing to the brink.
After angrily shaking the entire refrigerator, Dad resolves to rip the whole thing apart and put it back together. There’s a lot of crashing, banging, and swearing. A pause. A heavy thud. Then he yells for me upstairs.
As a kid, when I was handed a flashlight, a screwdriver, or best yet a hammer, it was special. My task has always been to squeeze through tight gaps and corners filled with cobwebs, to contort into odd angles to reach what needs fixing. When Dad left for weeks at a time over the summers to work on wildfires, I considered myself the man of the house while he was away—pink skirts, plastic tiaras, and sparkly light-up shoes included. It left me with the notion of responsibility and self-importance that every kid wants.
As a twenty-something home from college, that special feeling has faded even if the self-importance has not. I groan as I trudge downstairs to show how displeased I am to have been interrupted from obsessively refreshing my email. I’m waiting to hear back about applications to grad school and fellowships and scholarships and my whole future. I clearly don’t have time for the ice maker.
“I need your skinny arms,” he mutters, slapping the screwdriver into my hand and pointing to the tight and barely visibly bit of plating I need to secure for him. “My old man hands are too fat.” I could launch into a nuanced discussion about the body positivity movement to stall for time. But it would seem disingenuous, considering that somewhere around age seven I told him I was shocked to discover that not all fathers are fat. I’d thought it was a prerequisite to be squishy for children to crash into.
I hold the miniature Phillips screwdriver clenched oddly between the tips of my fingers and struggle to blindly insert it behind the ice maker in the fridge. The hole is positioned perfectly so that as soon as I move my hand to insert the screw, I lose sight of it completely. “Why’d they make it like this?”
He stretches behind me. “See? How was I supposed to do that?” His back isn’t what it used to be. He has a pinched nerve, probably from his old football days back in Texas. It gives him a lot of trouble in the morning and on longer walks with the dogs.
Finally, I feel the screw click into place. I turn the handle quickly and step back to admire my work. That old special feeling creeps up again, into my toes, the way it did when I helped him build the deck, haul furniture during the last move, capture the mouse that was terrorizing Mom, and chop a tree for Christmas. Last week, I even did my own project. The hose for the kitchen sink stopped retracting properly, and I figured out the magnetic ring that held the faucet head in place had fallen off. Whenever I do the dishes now, I return the faucet head with a satisfying click.
It leaves me with questions. One day soon, when I am fixing up my own apartment or butchering DIY tutorials for a vertical garden I’d like to try (even though I don’t know anything about plants), will I still feel proud? Or will it all become a mundane and tedious thing?
I got into one graduate program out of twelve I applied to. I think of that single acceptance letter like a lightning strike. I opened the email and got the rush, the excitement, the sweet validation. Somehow it hit me when it could have hit anywhere. For a day or so, I was giddy. I read the letter again and again, but soon my feet caught up to me and now it’s the next step in a flight of stairs rather than the peak of a mountain. It scares me a little bit, how quickly the joy can fade, the thunder rippling out until it's gone. Maybe I have some kind of complex. Maybe it’s as simple as the difference between text on a screen and calluses on a palm. “Congratulations” in a subject line versus holding the thing you have fixed, standing on the thing you have made.
Dad shuts the fridge door and grabs one of his big plastic cups. The ice falls smoothly and he grins at me. Maybe I'm wrong. Maybe it’s just about the company.
From the Pacific Northwest, Phoebe Whittington (@PhoebeW16) writes fiction, creative nonfiction, and illustrates her own comics. She is currently earning her MA in Book Publishing from Portland State University and is the prose/art editor for 3Elements Literary Review. Previously, she has been the managing editor for the Silk Road Review: A Literary Crossroads. Her work has been published in Iris Literary Journal and PLUM: Pacific's Literature by Undergraduates Magazine.