Washing My Father’s Back
A Very Short Story
I washed his back every evening after dinner. He would go into the bathroom alone, and soon I’d hear water running and splashing. I’d imagine him soaping his underarms and then trying to wash off the soap without getting water on the bathroom floor. I’d hear the toilet flushed as an afterthought, muffled sounds of clothing being pulled off or on. The sounds never seemed to coincide in a logical manner for me. I’d half-wonder if he was washing his underarms with his T-shirt still on or using the toilet with his pants zipped up.
This night I was trying to watch the six o’clock news so I could pass Mrs. Jaruski’s pop quizzes in my current events class. That class would be the end of my high school career. I had to pass in order to graduate. I wasn’t passing.
As if on cue, at quarter after six, he cracked open the bedroom door, releasing a warm yellow light.
“Mary, I’m ready.”
I didn’t mind. Sports was on next. The bathroom light was a beacon reaching through the dining room to just past the entry way of the living room where I sat. It was more inviting than the cool blue light from the TV in front of me. I was drawn to the bathroom light as much by need as by habit.
We had started this routine years ago when I grew tall enough to reach up and over his shoulders without having to stand on the toilet seat. Mother used to wash his back, but she died when I was five. Between times, I believed he just went around without his back being washed. He could have fixed the plumbing in the bathtub. He always promised her that he would, but I think he liked having her wash his back instead. She teased him, but she didn’t complain.
I liked washing his back. I would dip the washcloth in the hot, soapy water, wring it slightly, and then slowly rub it along his back. I’d have to be careful to glide the cloth over his moles, especially the big black one just below his right shoulder blade. It was tender, he said, so I had to be careful not to catch it with my fingernails.
His back was soft. If I rubbed too vigorously I left impressions of my fingertips. Sometimes I wanted to press harder, so hard that my fingerprints would stay on his back. They would be his ID. Everyone would know he was Mary’s father. He was mine.
He’d hold on to a towel, passing it to me when I asked, so I could catch drops of water before they seeped into the waistband of his pants. The soapy water would run down my arms and drip off my elbows. As careful as he was not to get the bathroom floor wet, I always left a puddle. He once said my mother always made a watery mess and they would laugh about it. I remember that. I remember hearing them laugh behind the bathroom door.
“Okay, that’s good.” That’s all he would say. I’d then unplug the sink and run the hot water, rinsing and wringing as much soap out of the washcloth as I could. After I had wiped all the soap off his back, I’d take the towel again and pat his back dry.
“Okay, Dad, I’m done.” That’s all I would say.
We never said much, just the same few words. Running my hands over his back were words enough for me. It’d been only us two for years, living like hermits in the small house with inadequate plumbing. He worked and I went to school and, for the most part, except for the part where Mother had died, we were content in our quiet, communal grief.
Coming out of the bathroom, I felt flushed from its warmth, wisps of my auburn hair curling at the edges of my hairband. The sleeves of my wool sweater were heavy and wet. The news was over. I didn’t remember what I had watched so if Mrs. Jaruski gave a pop quiz the next morning, I would fail.
I didn’t care.
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