A Knot in the Wood

A Short Story By Calla Devlin

It was the first time my father had visited me since I moved to New York, and we hadn’t been alone in a room since he helped me pack for grad school. He had paused before folding each article of clothing, then grimaced whenever he tucked something into my suitcase. His expression communicated what he couldn’t say: don’t go. Now, we strolled around the New York University campus in awkward moments of silence, punctuated by Dad’s sentences that trailed off like dust behind a car.

Last week, he mentioned an airline special caught his eye and I had to cancel my plans to accommodate his last-minute trip. I was supposed to be in Vermont with my boyfriend, who took his roommate instead.

I felt that nagging guilt that I shouldn’t have chosen a school so far away. I had stayed close to home for college. Uninspired by any of the nearby art programs, I scurried off to New York without considering our family—just the pair of us. I fancied myself an adult given I was old enough to drink and vote, but now, as I stood with him, I felt young. A teenager, even a child.

After I pointed out a few buildings, I noticed he focused his attention on me instead of the architecture. For the first time since he’d been in town, I felt like he was really looking at me. I watched as he took in my face. Even though he didn’t say it anymore, I knew he was thinking of how much I looked like my mother. It was difficult being a carbon copy of someone who was dead.

He pointed to the enormous moon filling the space between the buildings. Growing up, I was sustained by moments like this. Small instances when my father would take me aside and point to something as though he and I were the only ones able to see it. For years, Gray’s Lake belonged just to us, as though no one else in Des Moines could see the expanse of water.

He pulled me closer and wrapped both arms around me. In this position, I could be four, ten, or twelve years old. “Hungry?” he asked.

“Starving. I know the perfect place.”

We meandered down a few more blocks and the streets began to fill up with people. The weather turned last night, and an early November wind blew leaves down the street. Halloween decorations still hung in a few shop windows.

“Is this what you had in mind?” he asked, pointing to a door across the street. The windows were fogged up from breath and heat, and I could make out the figure of a man hovering over a seated couple.

I smiled as he opened the door, happy he was pleased. We walked past the laden coat hooks, and I struggled to add my jacket to the heap as my father requested a table. When I joined him, I was shocked to see the hostess, an attractive woman with hair cropped short in a stylish cut, flirting with him. I could have sworn she said, “Good to see you again.”

I wanted to ask her name. Inexplicably, all of the women he dated had names ending in the letter A: Carla, Sheila, Victoria, Amanda—nothing close to my mother’s name, Elizabeth.

My father chatted with the waiter, asking for recommendations for wine and food. After he settled on his choices, I ordered the same because Dad made it sound so good.

I rested my back against the booth and wondered if this is what my parents’ life was like before she became pregnant with me. If they went out much. If he smiled like this. I had heard the story of her death more than stories of their lives together. How long she labored to have me, the Cesarean section, a staggering amount of lost blood. And then, after I was released from her body, how the preeclampsia caused her blood pressure to soar, causing a stroke that would take her from us forever.

The waiter delivered the wine and filled our glasses. After a few sips, I felt the heat in my cheeks and neck and I was warm as if we were sitting in front of a fire.

“Megan,” my father said. “I need to tell you something.”

I felt the heat leave my body. I didn’t want to know whatever he was going to tell me, but I knew I didn’t have a choice.

“Okay,” I said in a low voice.

He didn’t meet my eyes. “I sold the house.”

“Our house? You mean the house I grew up in?”


“Why didn’t you tell me?” My chest tightened from a combination of disbelief and anger.

He paused. “I was worried you would say no.”

“When did you do it?” I stared him down. Dad was not a man to keep secrets, especially from me.

“It sold very quickly, much faster than I anticipated in this market.”

“What did you do with all of our stuff? There were things that I wanted to keep—Mom’s things. How could you do this?” I blinked back tears at the thought of my mother’s clothes now hanging in a random Goodwill store.

“I still have everything. It’s all in storage.”

“Is everything okay? You’re not sick, are you?”

“Perfectly healthy.”

“Did you have to sell the house?”

“No, nothing like that. I was promoted to senior vice president in a different office. With you in New York, I thought I should make a change.” I felt my hands relax, spreading open on the table like jellyfish. My teeth lost their clench. This was utterly unlike him, but he was okay; he wasn’t dying and he wasn’t on the brink of bankruptcy. I sipped my wine again, hoping to return some warmth to my skin. “Where are you moving to?”

I couldn’t read his expression. “New York.”

I didn’t know how long we stared at each other, but the waiter brought our salads. I glanced at the lettuce; the fancy greens mixed with figs and goat cheese.

I leaned closer and asked, “Dad, are you moving here?”

His ears reddened. “I’ve moved. I’m here.” He stopped talking and took a sip of wine.

“How could you not tell me this?”

His eyes remained on his glass. “I didn’t want you to feel like you had to take care of me.”

I couldn’t imagine Dad as anything but strong and resilient. “You’re the least needy person I know.”

He picked at a fig, disarticulating the seeds. “Have I made a terrible mistake by coming here?”

“You made a mistake by not telling me.”

He said, “I know. I’m very sorry about that.”

I imagined what it would be like having him here. Growing up, especially when I went to college, he gave me my freedom and respected my independence. When I became an adult, he treated me like one. I thought that was why we maintained our closeness.

“I don’t want to get in the way. I want you to keep your life with your friends and that guy you mentioned, the one you’re dating.”

“Josh,” I said. “You know it’s been hard for me to be so far away from you, too.” I met his eyes. “Are you going to tell me where you’re living?”

“Gramercy Park.”

“And you’re all moved in?”

“The firm took care of everything.”

“Wait, how long have you been here exactly?”

“A week.” He looked down at his glass. “I should have called you as soon as I arrived.”

“You should have called me as soon as you got the promotion. And you should have asked me if it was okay to follow me here.”

He cradled his wine glass before taking a healthy sip. “I was worried that you wouldn’t want me here. So I went ahead with the move.”

He avoided my eyes so I stared at him until he finally met mine. “I would never turn you away.”

Despite our dynamic duo approach to the world, he still made me feel young, and that made me worry about living my life as an adult. I wanted to spend my summers studying art in Europe. Josh and I had talked about going to Spain together and I didn’t want to clear my decisions with Dad. I wanted to get tipsy and sing karaoke with my friends. I paused for a moment and reminded myself of what I knew: He would listen to me. He wouldn’t follow me around and offer unsolicited advice about classes and boys and hangovers. If I said “Never, ever cross Fourteenth Street without calling me first,” he would oblige. That’s how much he respected me.

“I don’t want to be so far away from you. I guess I understand that part.”

Dad squeezed my hand. When he released it, I accidentally knocked over my glass of wine. It broke, sending shards into our salads. Wine seeped into the white tablecloth. The waiter hurried over.

“I’m sorry,” I said.

“Don’t worry about it.” He cleared the table with remarkable speed.

The wood was exposed, the deep red of the wine darkening the center of the table. Dad wiped up the liquid with his napkin and ran his hand across the smooth surface. His fingers stopped at the knot in the wood.

“The house became unbearable. When your mom died, you filled it with life. But when you moved here, all I could think about was her and then you and how you’d be back only a couple of times a year. I know I’m your dad and I’m supposed to be the strong one, but not this time. I am sorry I didn’t tell you. I felt like this,” he said as he touched the dark circles of wood. “Most trees have knots, but not deep enough to break a branch. I lost your mother and I couldn’t bear to lose you too. Even to distance.”

“That’s impossible,” I said.

Dad flagged the waiter and asked, “Would it be possible to get our entrees to go and the check?”

A few moments later, he brought the bill and our wrapped pork chops. We walked outside and I slipped into the warm sleeves of my coat. In a matter of minutes, a taxi approached and Dad instructed the cabbie to take us to his new address.

Once we were driving, I rested my head against his shoulder, bringing back the closeness I felt with him earlier on our walk. It was true that I felt a little lost without him. Now the feeling that we were the only ones in the world would be constant again. I took hold of his hand and felt more adult than I ever had before.

Calla Devlin of Des Moines is a Pushcart nominee and winner of the Blood and Thunder Fiction Prize. Her stories have appeared in, among other journals, The Sand Hill Review, Breakwater, Five Fingers Review and Wilderness House Literary Review. Her story “Borderlines” won honorable mention as one of the year’s most notable publications in Dave Egger’s Best American Nonrequired Reading 2003, and her story “Bird’s Milk” was a finalist in Glimmer Train’s “Family Matters” fiction competition. Her work also has appeared in several anthologies. Currently, she is working on a novel.

Happy Endings
By C. Michael Cox

my daughter hands me the ladybug
palms cupped holding holy water
fix it, daddy – she silently stares with tears
crushed red and black shell
black wings spread
legs retracted
I take the bug and shake my head

it isn’t real these joys to the girl
she wonders about bunny and white Santa man
fairies and princesses
the color green
questioning everything without wanting
to test
or find what scavengers hunt

we play make and I believe
she dresses in white and shoes of gold
waves her wand and makes a wish
she knows will never come true
I open my fist and there reveal
a ladybug still unhealed
a hand to hold her within

C. Michael Cox is a Des Moines writer whose work has appeared in numerous publications, including Modern Dickens Project, Sleet Magazine and Splash of Red. He’s also a photographer, storyteller and curator associated with local arts and cultural organizations. He is a graduate of the writing, literature and publishing program at Emerson College. Find out more: cmichaelcox.com

You May Also Like

Mission to Maytag

Take a tour of Maytag Dairy Farms to experience the history and traditions of ...

Keith Lynch

Written by Chad Taylor Photo by Duane Tinkey Keith Lynch hasn’t always been a ...


“Blue Lagoon” (2012) by Des Moines artist Robert Spellman, oil on canvas, 70.5 x ...