My mom crouches on the backseat floorboard. The divorce has driven her, no, us, to new lows of curiosity. “Not so slow,” she whispers. My dad would hardly recognize us in the rental car, let alone hear our conversation. Still, my mom whispers. Instructs me to drive with an air of nonchalance as though this were a tea party we whipped together. It appears Dad is not home. But someone’s van is parked along the curb in front of his new house. Mom taps my elbow through the middle console. “Drive around the block again.” I look at my husband beside me in the passenger seat. A look that in our few years of marriage already communicates without words: Here we go again.
The three of us are on a mission to solve a mystery about my dad that began a couple years ago when he and Mom filed for divorce. At first it seemed my parents would continue living together, divorced, until death did them part. I think they could have. If it hadn’t been for one misstep on beige carpet.
The Commonwealth of Kentucky thought its proceedings official, but ultimately, a fingernail dissolved my parents’ thirty-four shared years. They’d been divorced for a year, maintaining a life under one roof in my childhood home more happily ever after than before. Under the one roof they divided bills and bedrooms. Separated on opposite ends of the single-story rancher, but drawn together for dinners and dates. Their renewed happiness and laughter confused, almost pained me. Once they called, waking my husband and I at a late hour. “It’s ABBA!” Mom and Dad yelled over the concert noise and a connection that broke in and out. “Don’t they sound awesome!”
Not long after that night Mom had to go and be a wife again. She crossed the interior divide into Dad’s bedroom to collect his dirty laundry. That’s when she—and the amicable divorced cohabitation—stepped in it, so to speak. “Shoot the moon!” she yelled as an object pierced the bottom of her bare foot. Dad’s shirts and socks sprayed like confetti from her arms before littering the carpet. Mom limped to the rocking chair. I pictured the toes on her injured foot crumpling, pink flower buds shriveling from a cold snap.
“I couldn’t believe it, Hol. I just couldn’t believe it,” she said over the phone.
Hammocked in the crease of her foot was a scarlet, crescent tip of a fingernail. An acrylic fingernail.
“Can you believe it?”
The mystery could have started and ended there. There wasn’t any use in suggesting plausible alternatives—like maybe my sister-in-law had chipped a nail while helping Mom set the table and the hapless fragment fell onto Dad’s plate and, rather than embarrass her breach of table manners, as innocent as it was, he slipped the nail into his shirt pocket to remove with more discretion later, which, having forgotten about the little sliver by bedtime, he flung his shirt onto the heap of dirty clothes, sending the imposter of a fingernail spiraling free from the pocket and onto the floor, lying in wait for Mom’s exposed sole. No, there was no use mentioning it because no woman in this family wears acrylic. Not even in-laws.
Instead of offering explanations I grasped for comforting words. All I found were, “Ugh. I don’t know, Mom.”
I did know that I had to fly home to offer moral support. Mom had extracted the specimen from her foot with tweezers and sealed it inside a baggie. Exhibit A: Acrylic Fingernail. It belonged to someone about town. And Mom had a pretty good idea whom.
My husband and I booked a flight from Baltimore to my Kentucky hometown. “Are you sure you want to get involved?” he asked. Frankly, I was relieved that something of the modern proverbial “epic” was underfoot. After all these years, including the divorced year, they were finally going to call it quits, and I could move on too. At least I’d have a less confusing, more defined box to put their relationship in. Of course I felt a pie chart of emotions that ranged from slices of sadness and sympathy to anger–and humor. My relationship was transitioning from the kid they nurtured and protected to the adult friend they turned to for guidance and help. I accepted this change. And for the moment, my mother needed me more than my father. The child in me took sides.
Our house had always been a quiet house. A windows-open-to-the-sounds-of-nature kind of house. Birdsong and the vinyl recording of the “Romeo and Juliet” soundtrack, Franco Zeffirelli’s version, were the only noises encouraged. Although the quiet was still there, it had changed. Like the way fifty-degree temperatures feel cool in fall but warm in spring. Mom wasted no time settling us in. She ushered my husband and me to the living room couch for Show and Tell. Dad was at work; she had reasons for not confronting him with the bagged-and-tagged fingernail–yet. Mom wriggled the bag’s seal apart with her thumbs, careful not to chip her French-manicured nails, authentic and less easily replaced as they were. She clamped the shard between the tweezers and held it up to the window. The fingernail fragment glistened in the light, red as artificial hummingbird nectar. “Lemme see it.” I held out my hand. Mom released her grip on the tweezers. It fell into my hand, too insignificant to plop, too coarse to float like a feather. My husband and I stared at the estranged tip. It curved in my palm like a tongue unable to explain itself.
“You’re sure it doesn’t belong to Liz or Aunt Ella?” my husband asked. Mom and I laughed. He was still new to the family. Besides, Mom had squeezed in a scouting mission between the moment it took her to phone us and our arrival. She’d recruited Liz, my sister-in-law, for the covert operation to Parkside Grille. They’d had lunch there to observe the waitresses’ hands. One set of hands in particular, Mom suspected, would be short a complete fingernail. She and Liz passed the baggie back and forth under the booth for reference. Judging from the nail’s shape, they were looking for a flawed index finger. Round serving trays obstructed their view. After failing to find a naked fingertip, Mom formed a plan B. She’d use the key to Dad’s office, still attached to her key ring, to access some real answers.
“Yes, but isn’t he at the office?” my husband asked.
“It’s Friday,” Mom explained. “He’s out with clients most of the day.”
“Most?” I asked.
I brushed the nail back into the baggie. “And if not?”
“Then y’all flew in to surprise him.”
The element of surprise had been a family tradition. I didn’t realize Dad didn’t know we were in town, but I should have. When I was younger, Mom and I redecorated the guest bedroom from top to bottom with new furniture and wallpaper without telling Dad. Mom had saved a stash from teaching summer school. She was tired of money evaporating into bills; she wanted something to show for her hard work. Better to ask for forgiveness than permission she’d said.
Dad’s office was the end unit in a strip mall. In line with a post office, florist, and BBQ shop, and amidst enough activity for us to come and go undetected. To avoid feeling like a criminal, I reminded myself of a fact I’d been neglecting—I am his daughter. Not a stranger. Besides, we weren’t breaking and entering when we had a key. Were we? Just in case, I advised we flaunt the key on our approach. My husband, having run military cargo in and out of defensive borders in Guantanamo and Kuwait, accepted the challenge of blending in with us Kentuckians and our ways, however foreign. “Just walk in like we own the place,” he said. Dad’s office appeared empty, so we proceeded through the front door. Jangling keysets like we owned the whole damned strip mall.
The three of us waddled on our knees across the conference room floor, cautious to keep our heads below the open blinds. Mom pointed to a painting on the wall: A watercolor she and Dad had bought from the artist during their honeymoon in Gatlinburg. “I should come back for that,” she whispered. We shuffled behind her into Dad’s private office. “What are we looking for again?” my husband asked. While I was along for the ride, he needed a clear objective. “Bank statements,” Mom answered.
We rummaged through Dad’s file cabinets Watergate-style looking for records from a separate account. The photos displayed on his desk and bookshelves distracted me. Like Mom and Dad at the dinner table, the divorce had not separated the family from various frames encircling the office. The big-mouthed bass Dad helped me reel in after Mom handed me the pole, pretending I’d been the one who’d hooked the fish. The vintage Volkswagen convertible they’d bought me for my sixteenth birthday, indulging a hippie phase that reminded them of their youth.
“A-ha!” Mom broke through the silence. She’d discovered the folder of bank statements from the previous year. “Would you look at this…”
Each month there was an automatic deduction that stood out like a finger without a nail. An amount that could pass for a modest mortgage payment was electronically deducted from his account and applied to a ‘hers’ account. A her that matched Mom’s hunch. “Do you feel a sense of closure?” I asked as she continued to read through the statements.
“What’s this here?” Mom’s voice trailed off. My husband and I looked at each other, brows scrunched. “What?” I reached for the papers.
Each month a smaller, but still noticeable amount was transferred to a male who shared the last name of the fingernail’s owner. His name struck a memory of a boy Mom used to tutor. On the weekends I came home from college I’d join them at the kitchen table, watch something click in his head as Mom diagrammed sentences. None of his teachers could explain grammar that way to him. His mom was rarely home, working double shifts waiting tables to save for his dream of going to college. Something clicked in my head; Mom had had more than a fleeting hunch about this waitress and the fingernail. Mom had found the evidence she’d come for. But opening Pandora’s file cabinet had raised another question. What exactly was our family connection, other than financial, to this woman’s son? Exhibit B: Bank Statements. Or, Brother?
I adjusted the picture frames to their original angles. None included fishing trips with a boy. Or a father handing over the keys to wheels and freedom to a son. Mom returned the file to its exact place in the cabinet. We walked out, failing to take to our knees in the windowed conference area. My husband removed the painting from the wall. “Don’t forget this,” he said.
Mom called Dad from the car to suggest that he not come home that night, that I’d flown in with a problem only a mother could understand. While my husband boiled pasta, Mom and I sat at the kitchen table entertaining plausible scenarios. Like maybe Dad’s lifetime burden of being frugal had cracked under the weight of the divorce, as uplifting as it was, and rather than celebrate in clichés and red convertibles, Dad invested, with discretion, in a single mom and her bright son, who, having no relation to us other than his desire to do well in school, had humbly accepted Dad’s tuition assistance.
“It can’t be. Can it?” I asked.
“Ugh. I don’t know, Hol. I just don’t know.”
“Are you going to ask him?”
“Ask him what? We’re divorced.”
I’d thought of that detail too, but figured we were way past semantics. If Mom wasn’t going to come on out and ask, then I would. Once Mom had gone to bed I called Dad. He was watching an old Western in his hotel room. Mom’s call had worried him. Was I okay?
“Are you seeing someone, Dad?”
“Am I what?”
“You know, have you found someone else?”
Of course he hadn’t. What made me think that? How could I possibly think that? I could hear him tearing up on the other end of the phone. I could hear Mom tearing up on the other side of the wall. I couldn’t push any further. My need to know wasn’t as strong as my need for both of them to move on–for real.
Not long after that weekend Dad moved out. I debated with myself. A friend of mine in the Baltimore area, an expert in gathering cyber-intelligence, offered to answer the questions I couldn’t bring myself to ask my dad. The child in me was torn between wanting answers and needing to preserve memories. Mom, on the other hand, wanted to continue the mission of finding out whatever it was that would close the case on her heart.
So here we are, my husband and I have returned to Kentucky, where we are circling my dad’s block in a rental car. Mom flat as a train-pressed penny on the floorboard. Ducking from the foreign van parked at his new house. I blink to be sure. But there it is in plain view: Car on Dad’s Curb.
“You should knock on the door,” Mom advises, propping her arm on the center console. “She doesn’t know y’all.”
My husband swears he sees a curtain move in the upstairs window. Dad’s new home is a two-story colonial that sits on a hill. The cobbled walkway winds and climbs to his front door. I think I’ve come as close as I can.