‘Harold Digs His Way to China’


Casey announced to her father she was going into her office, her voice cool, flat, unsmiling. She leaned against the oak jamb framing the entrance to the living room, hip thrust out, a half-eaten bar of chocolate at her side.

“Hold my calls.”

Harold Benson watched his daughter turn and pad down the hall to her room.

This was not what he had in mind when he accepted the firm’s offer to work four-day weeks after tax season rush. He thought about letting it ride. But then he remembered the two of them, Casey and his wife Millie, talking and laughing in the kitchen that morning, their voices dropping as he entered. Millie put a hand on Casey’s shoulder and leaned in to her. She had a way of doing that—leaning in and creating a world apart. Casey laughed, the toast popped. Millie greeted Harold and buttered the toast, laughing herself. There they were, two sorority sisters. Millie knew sorority sisters. At UCLA she counseled them. It was an unfair advantage.

When he heard the door to Casey’s room close, Harold began a slow walk down the hall. It was like heading to a job interview, one that never ended. You interviewed for it fresh nearly every day. Hi, I’m Harold, I’d like to be your father, I’ve been preparing for this job my whole life.

He stood before her door, considered, knocked.

“A knock on the door is a call, Dad. I’m in the middle.”

In the middle. She had become the master of the truncated sentence. Maybe it was the new thing.

“I was just hoping we could spend some time, the two of us, before your mother gets home. Don’t you need a break?”

“School is boring. School is the break.”

“Two minutes. Two minutes for the old man. Then it’s back to the grindstone.”

He heard Casey exhale. “You’re on the clock.”

Harold eased the door open as his daughter snapped shut a thick notebook and pushed her chocolate bar to the far corner of the desk, its silver wrapping reflecting the shifting light falling through the mobile hanging above. The overhead light was dimmed and the blinds drawn, the room lit mostly by a handful of lamps topped by Casey’s collection of odd shades, like hats in a Dr. Seuss cartoon. The shifting, dappled light, which reminded Harold of the garden in late afternoon, lent a sense of motion to the Japanese comic art and the blown-up frames from graphic novels hanging on the walls. No Spiderman or Wonderwoman here. Serious stuff, about Bosnia, the Holocaust, weird brainy kids.

Casey swiveled around in her chair and motioned him to sit on the bed, palm extended like a seasoned business executive. An executive teenaged tomboy in low-riding jeans and Dodgers tee-shirt. Harold sat but just as quickly stood and paced the room.

“What’s on the front burner these days? Are you still doing that Japanese manga?” He scrambled for a combination of words that worked. “Which has nothing to do with the fruit called mango?”

Casey spit out a quick laugh, the small gap in her front teeth flashing like a wink. Then her eyes narrowed and she spoke with thin lips, “Dad you are so square your corners are going to poke somebody’s eye out. I’ve hit a wall on manga. I have some good ideas. I should probably go to Japan for a semester when I get to college.”

“That could be fun. The future is in the Far East, everyone says so.” Casey tapped her Converse sneakers on the wood floor, and Harold turned from the poster he was studying (Jimmy Corrigan: Smartest Kid on Earth!). “Sent out anything new lately?”

“A few comics.” Casey stretched her legs and crossed her feet. “A story.”

“Which one?” Harold stopped and stood with his hands behind his back, trying not to fidget. He thought of the way Millie had leaned in to her.

Casey slouched low in her chair and rattled it off. “The one where global warming floods the planet and poisons the sky and there’s a race to colonize the deepest parts of the ocean where the water is still clean and the map of civilization becomes the opposite of what it is now.”

“Yeah, that’s a good one.”

“Yep,” Casey said, dragging out the word. She turned to the clock, sat up and reached behind her for the chocolate. “Time.”

Harold stared hard at the bar of chocolate as Casey brought it to her mouth and snapped off a perfect square with her teeth. It was no candy bar he’d ever seen.

“Where’d you get that chocolate? What’s wrong with a Hershey bar?”

“Gourmet shop. Cocoa butter. Time.”

“I’m happy you can afford gourmet chocolate now.”

“Would you rather I spent my chore money on designer jeans like the other girls? Would you rather?” This was the new refrain, the rhetorical question that allowed no comeback.

Casey spun in her chair, her back to Harold, her hand flat on the closed notebook, waiting.

“Thanks for the time,” Harold said as he closed the door behind him, slowly releasing the knob and allowing the catch to slip into place, the click sounding like a safe.

Harold drifted into the kitchen, needing to do something with his hands.  He opened the refrigerator door, looking for clues about dinner. Lasagna. He could rinse spinach, that he could do. He had finished with the spinach and had started chopping onions when Millie walked in, her work satchel in one hand and a baguette in the other.

“Am I a good father?” Harold asked her, pausing with the knife. The burnt orange of her silk scarf set off her curly red hair. She was lovely in that fresh-faced librarian way of hers, and he knew he should tell her; but the question had been forming itself on his tongue all afternoon. “Am I doing a good job?”

Millie stopped and blinked slowly, looking startled and naïve even though she was neither. She set down her bag and the bread, came up to Harold and pecked him on the cheek. “It is a nice afternoon. You can go a little smaller with the onions.” It was not the way she had leaned in to Casey.

Harold put the knife down. He was not a walk-and-chew-gum guy. He pressed on as Millie sat at the small, tiled table where they had breakfast and read the paper in the morning. “This is my only shot. I’ve got to get it right.”

“Yes, this is your only shot.” Millie laced her fingers together on the table. “But your job is not to get it right. There’s no getting anything right.”

Harold scrubbed his hands, dried them, smelled onion, scrubbed them again. He turned and kneaded the dish towel in his hands. “How long is this chocolate thing going to last?”

Harold sat across from Millie and gazed at his wife, his eyes a question mark. He was tall with long restless limbs and he sat uneasily in the small chair. “Do I tell her she’s beautiful? I’m sure I do.”

“Benson, she’s fine. She’s healthy and can outrun most boys her age. She has a good breakfast, she has a good dinner. In between she snacks on chocolate. She’s fine, she doesn’t have food issues.”

He would concede her authority on that point. It settled nothing. “Maybe not,” he said, pushing his chair back. “She doesn’t have friends, either.”

“She has a few.”

“Not many.”

“Kids like her. They’re drawn to her. Someday she’ll come across people who hold her attention. For now she has her projects. You,” Millie said, reaching across and patting his forearm, “you need a hobby. You have too much time on your hands. You make up problems. You organize things in columns and make sure they add up. Life isn’t like that.”

“Casey has enough hobbies for the three of us.”

“Speak for yourself.”

It was true. Millie always had her hands in something, she never just sat and brooded. Or maybe she just didn’t let him see. He was seeing so much from a distance, or not at all.

“I’m going out back,” Harold said. “I need some air.”

As he passed into the living room Harold was conscious of his long legs, how his knees rose up when he tried to take shorter steps, how his feet slapped down in a funny way no matter what he did. He knew Millie was looking at him. She didn’t brood, but she looked long and hard at people, not trying to figure them out, just taking it all in. It was what he had first noticed about her, the way she noticed. He remembered walking along Venice Beach and thinking he could see it all, see the whole passing spectacle of it, just by looking at Millie, watching her watch.

Harold stepped out into the back yard and took a deep breath, like the air there was different, less crowded; and it was. Slices of red-tinged sunlight barely cleared the clay-tiled roof behind him and struck the yellow blossoms of the acacia against the far brick wall. Below the sun line, its leaves gleamed silver in the shadows. Lately he’d been helping Millie with the yard and the garden, and he found it satisfying. Even on a hot day the cool of the earth shocked and pleased him. He liked plunging his hands in, feeling the bite of the soil under his fingernails.

In the garden, for once, his hands felt nimble and useful away from a keyboard or calculator. His long fingers extracted weeds and grass, maneuvering safely around buds and stems. A tender transplant, its fine mesh of young roots clinging to bits of earth, looked safe and protected in his hands.

It had started with hands, nearly ten years ago, on Casey’s sixth birthday. He was squatting before her, bent-kneed, holding her hands lightly at the fingertips, allowing her to stand two inches above him and feel herself to be the big girl she now was. He told her she was the best present anyone ever gave to him, birthday or no birthday, and pulled her hands forward to kiss them. A few neighborhood kids were out back with Millie. Harold had snagged Casey on her way out the door, and she didn’t seem to mind, seemed to like being alone with him for a moment.

“Would you look at these fingers,” Harold mused out loud, more to himself than to her. It was one of those moments when you see something familiar, and see it new.

“What?” Casey giggled.

“How long and slender they are. You have an artist’s hands.”

The freckles on her forehead crinkled. “What’s an artist?”

What indeed. What did Harold know about being an artist. He was an accountant. Though he could lead Millie in a waltz, he couldn’t draw or carry a tune. He read, but mainly detective novels. He tried to read literary fiction but he would find himself reading the same paragraph twice, looking up and into space for a minute, then returning to the page to read the paragraph a third time before giving up. He knew nothing of being an artist. He knew about looking on artist types from afar. At Bard he had lingered as he passed the coffeehouses and the co-ops, staring at the hippies with their long hair and acoustic guitars and thick black notebooks. Something was welling up inside of them and had to come out.

Harold looked out the window at Millie and the other kids. They had stopped at one. Casey looked at Harold, awaiting his answer. “An artist is someone who has something inside of them, something that needs to come out. Ideas, visions, songs.” Harold knew he was failing to translate adult concepts properly, but he plowed on, carried away. “They may be a painter, a writer, a sculptor, a musician. But it has to come out, and it can only come out through their fingers.” He stopped, unsure what he’d just said. Harold kissed her hands again and jumped to his feet. “Ready for cake?”

After cake Casey grabbed a pad and new set of markers she’d been given and sprawled out on her belly in the middle of the living room and started drawing. To his knowledge she’d never looked at the comics but here she was telling a story in a sequence of frames. A cake split open and a handful of stick figures crawled out. They climbed on the candles and rode them like rockets. Casey stopped paying attention to the neighborhood kids. One of them asked her what she was doing. “I’m an artist,” she said. “Things are coming out of my fingers.” Birthday parties tend to peter out after cake, it didn’t seem a big deal.

He had set something in motion, that much was clear. Ten years later, Casey was on some days an ordinary kid. Other days she was in a hurry to get somewhere. Sometimes she talked and bubbled; then there were stretches of absorbed silence and furious creation. She snapped at her parents. Mostly at Harold. Like it was his fault for telling her she had artist’s hands. As Casey seemed to need him less and less, he imagined Millie did, too. They were a pair.

Harold could remember, clearly, the last time he and Casey really laughed together. It was nearly six months ago, back in May. It was his second Friday at home, and Casey seemed glad to have someone to talk to when she walked in the door. She was excited about the school year coming to a close. It meant summer and three weeks at art camp; and it meant next year she started high school, which had to be better, had to be more interesting. She listed the comics and stories she was hoping to finish and send off to magazines. She wondered if she was too young to get an agent.

“That’s what college is for, making connections. You haven’t even started high school. Don’t be in such a hurry to grow up.”

Casey sat up on the couch and mimed making a checkmark in the palm of her hand. “You’ve hit five hundred on that one, Dad. I’m afraid I’ll have to add it to the list of banned phrases.”

“Hey, who’s in charge here anyway?”

“That was banned months ago,” Casey said, rolling her eyes.

Harold leaned back in his favorite chair, his hands folded quiet in his lap. Sometimes he worried about Casey not having a brother or a sister, but for that moment it seemed perfect the way it was, a perfect equation. Brothers and sisters never added up right, in the end somebody always came up short.

“An artist has to strike while the iron’s hot,” Casey continued, the flat line of her mouth wise and matter-of-fact. “You never know when the well’s going to run dry. I have to keep pushing. I know I can do better than a lot of the crap out there.”

“You could just say ‘junk’ you know.”


“I know.”

“Remember,” Casey started, then covered her mouth, holding in a laugh. “Do you remember the first time I really swore? I didn’t even know how. Jason Ellis was teasing me, relentlessly, about my diastema,” she said, pausing to pose a wide smile that showed the gap in her teeth, “and when I got home from school I was still mad and I said he was a dumb shitter, a stupid dumb shitter. Do you remember what you did?”

“What? No.”

“You sent me to my room. ‘To your room, young lady.’  And Mom said, ‘For God’s sake, Harold. For God’s sake she’s upset, give her a break.’ And you turned on her, your face all red, pointing, and sent her to her room, too.” She covered her face with her hands and then opened them. “You tried to send Mom to her room!

Casey was heaving with laughter, tears streaming down her face. Harold was laughing almost as hard, a laugh sounding sharply at the roof of his mouth, filling his head.

That was six months ago. High school was not the promised land. Casey was moody; Fridays at home were a bust. He was almost looking forward to the long weeks that would start after the New Year.

Dusk was nearing and the distended bar of light from the kitchen window took on definition in the deepening shadows of the yard. Harold watched his wife move calmly about the kitchen. To watch Millie prepare dinner in that square of light framed by darkness was both intimate and distant, like watching a movie or a play in a quiet dark theater. Casey, too, with her notebooks stuffed with visions, was worlds away. He was on the outside looking in, in his own house. Harold watched Millie and felt something turning inside of him, a wondering, a question, he could not put a name to.

Millie was Zen Mother. She shouldn’t be that way, she’d seen bad parenting up close. When they met she was the neurotic one, anxious about being a mother. Harold was obsessed with parenting. He trained for it: working at summer camp as a teen, in college at a home for troubled boys. Here he was now, with one daughter, and over his head at that. What had he been thinking?

Millie was rinsing off the lasagna noodles when Harold strode into the kitchen.

“I’m going to ask her how I’m doing.”

“What on earth?” Millie turned off the water and stood still with her back to Harold.

Harold paused as he noticed the cream sauce bubbling on the back burner. There was something sweet about it, was she adding a dash of nutmeg? He would have to ask her later; for now there was no going back, the thing must be stood up to and faced.

“At school she gets report cards. At work we get performance reviews.” It was easier addressing her back, she couldn’t interrupt him with her eyes. “It’s a way of checking in, taking stock. Next year she turns sixteen. You know what that means. If there’s some festering issue, I want to know. While there’s time to nip it in the bud.”

What are you going to ask her?” Millie asked in slow even tones.

“How’s the old man doing, I’ll ask.” His hands flapped in the air. “Overall, scale of one to ten. Good points, bad points. Areas for improvement, goals for the future.”

“Do what you need to, Benson,” Millie said over her shoulder, not quite making eye contact with him. “Or not. And or not is probably the better option.”

She turned and shook her hands, flinging droplets of water at him. Harold wound the tape back to Do what you need to do and decided he would do just that.

As Harold entered the living room Casey was coming down the hall from her room, eyes far away, lips moving slightly as if reciting a silent chant.

“Hey, kiddo.”

“Hey. I’m going to see if Mom needs help with dinner.”

Another round to Millie. “Good idea.”

Harold sat in his chair and saw The Economist open to an article about China’s monetary policy he thought he should read.

He remembered a day at the beach as a young boy. While his older brothers tossed a Frisbee at the edge of the surf, Harold dug a moat in the sand. He could build up the castle only so far without the top crumbling, but the deeper the moat, he reasoned, the more impressive the castle. “What are you trying to do, Harold?” his father asked. “Dig your way to China?”

Casey walked out of the kitchen, shrugging her shoulders. “Mom says she’s good.”

“She is good, isn’t she?” Harold said flatly, a dart of sadness hitting him in the side.

Casey laughed. “You’re a funny guy, Dad.”

“Am I?” He didn’t feel funny, not one bit.

Casey grabbed a baseball cap off the coat stand by the door and pulled it on, backwards, tucking her hair under the visor in back. “I’m going for a walk.”

Harold jumped up. Time to face the music. “I’ll join you.”

Casey didn’t say anything.

“We’re going for a walk, the two of us,” Harold called out to the kitchen.

Out on the street, Harold had nothing to say. He concentrated on matching his gait to Casey’s. She moved with an easy athleticism that reminded Harold of his older brothers. Genes were funny, receding some generations, popping up in others, and disappearing, too.

It had been a dry November and some of his neighbors were out watering before dinner. People in Westwood kept tidy lawns and well-tended gardens. He and Millie had a plain front yard and put most of their energy into the garden out back that few people saw. The air was cool and the fronds of the palm trees lining the street stood out sharply against the blue-black sky.

“How’s school?” Harold asked, startled by his own blandness.

“Did you like high school?”

“It was a long time ago. I think I liked it OK.” He had loved it. Loved its structure, the march from class to class, each with its own thick textbook, its own fresh set of puzzles. College, with its sprawl of people and choices, was another matter.

Harold counted his steps and racked his brain.

“So what is cocoa butter doing in your mother’s hand-cream? What’s it do for your chocolate?”

“I have no idea what it’s doing in mom’s hand-cream.”

“And in your chocolate?” Harold asked, at the end of the block.

“You really want to know?”

“I’m all ears.”

“It’s a perfect crystal, for one thing,” Casey said, slowing. “To get it to crystallize right they heat it and then cool it to very precise temperatures. A good chocolate will dull a chef’s knife like nothing. And it snaps—just so.”

“You pay extra so it will snap and ruin your knife?”

“Clueless. No, you pay for mouth feel. Cocoa butter melts at ninety-one degrees—literally, in your mouth.”

“Not in your hands.”



“American chocolate, your Hershey bar, has only twenty percent cocoa butter. Belgian chocolate has forty. They have laws in Belgium about cocoa butter.”

“Now there’s enlightened state-craft.”

We have laws about ketchup. It’s what’s important to you.”

Am I important—to you?

“I don’t know where you come up with this stuff. I always thought chocolate was chocolate.”

“It’s not. Premium chocolate has more good brain chemicals, too. Until I’m old enough to drink coffee it’s the best way to get up to speed.”

Speeding away. Far far away.

“Chocolate is banned in horse racing,” Casey added, an afterthought.

Who was this girl? Where had she come from? How did anything turn out like it did?

“Cool knowledge, huh?”

“I’ll say.”

“You asked.”

“No, really.” Harold reached out and placed a hand on her back, knocking her cap to the side. His hand fell away. Casey straightened her cap; they continued walking.

They rounded a corner back onto their street. Millie had put on the light over the front door. What was she doing now, right now?

Harold looked up. A few stars sputtered high above. Casey was a stranger. At the center of the known universe, creation turning around her. Finding hidden worlds. Flashing her gap-toothed smile and happy to teach the world the right word for it.

The buttery smell of the cream sauce filled the house. Casey headed off to her room.

“Hey, Casey.”

“Yeah, Dad,” she said, turning, already lost in the dark of the hallway.

“Keep up the good work.”

Casey tilted her head, seemed to nod. Maybe she smiled. He couldn’t be sure. “Will do,” she said, and continued on down the hall.

Millie was pressing the top layer of the lasagna into place and turned her head as Harold came into the kitchen.

“Tell me you didn’t ask her.”

He had no idea what she was talking about.

“You heard me. Tell me you didn’t ask her.”

“Oh,” Harold said and sat down. Millie rinsed her hands and picked up the lasagna pan. Harold stood and opened the oven door. “Smells good.”

He leaned against the oven after closing the door. Its warmth was pleasing. Millie stood near him, arms folded, waiting. She could wait with the best of them.

“She’s a good kid,” Harold said finally. “Like you said, she’s fine.”

Millie’s arms dropped to her side and her expression softened. “Hey, sweets… you alright?”

She placed a hand on his shoulder, then the other.

“Hey,” she said, her head close, her voice in a different register. “Talk to me.”

It was one of the things he had first loved about her, the way her voice dropped to a low hush, like a bucket whispering down a rope to retrieve something. It was one of the things he would miss, terribly, if anything ever happened.

“We’re OK,” he was able to say. “I think we’re all OK.”

* * *

Published on December 10, 2011 at 9:36 pm  Leave a Comment  

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