In What Happens in Arcata, a father is determined to throw his daughter a wonderful birthday party after screwing it up the prior year. But when his wife texts him to Get Some Healthy Snacks, he buys soda, chips, cookies, chocolate milk, and Twizzlers. Things go downhill from there.
About the Author
Jason Wallace is a high school special education teacher in Sacramento, CA who likes flat track motorcycle racing. He also likes to write, fish, lift weights, and cook. He has two children.
Jason's short story Chasing Murakami won third place in Glimmer Train’s Short Story Award for New Writers competition.
What Happens in Arcata by Jason Wallace
The next morning, the father stood at the threshold of his daughter’s bedroom, a look of amazement (or was it horror?) on his face. How could two little kids cause this much devastation? Toys—or the mangled plastic wreckage of what were once toys—were strewn across the floor. Splatters of soda and chocolate milk covered the walls in long, sticky patterns. Asleep at odd angles in their respective corners were his daughter Ana Lee (eight) and son Corbin (four). They looked like a couple of sturdy tractors that had been hurled into the far corners of a farm by a monster tornado, intact and unscratched, while all about them lay the splintered timbers of a house and the twisted metal of a shed.
“I told you not to feed them all of that sugar,” hissed his wife. He hadn’t listened. When she first met him, this was his most appealing quality. He was all studded leather jacket and combat boots and I’ll-do-whatever-I-want attitude. He could care less about what others thought of him. And that was charming, except when he failed to heed her advice or follow her instructions.
“I’m going to the co-op and then I’m hitting the gym,” she said. “I’ll be back in three hours. That room better be clean.”
“Okay,” he said weakly.
The night before had been Ana Lee’s birthday. He had screwed up the previous one. He was supposed to pick up five of her friends, drive them to the party, and then drive them back to their homes the next morning. One lived in Eureka, one in McKinleyville, another in Blue Lake, and a set of twins lived near the Hoopa Indian Reservation “off the grid” (which meant their parents grew pot). His wife had told him to rent a van. He had insisted that Roger’s minivan was good enough and had working seat belts. His wife said that Roger was an idiot and his vehicle didn’t look road worthy. He borrowed Roger’s van anyway (it only cost him gas money), and it broke down outside of Weitchpec. He had no cell service, and the only people who stopped to help were a couple of meth heads who joked that they’d tow them into town, but he’d have to give them one of the girls.
It was six hours before he made it back to Arcata. By that time the twins had demanded they be taken back to their home off the grid, the other girls’ parents were demanding that their children be returned immediately, and his daughter had cried so long and hard during the ride home that she had broken out in hives. He had sworn to Ana Lee he’d make it up to her the next year.
Ana Lee was a year older and having been traumatized by the previous year’s debacle, she requested that this year’s party consist of just the family and that her parents should “let me do anything I want.”
* * *
Before the party, the first text he’d received from his wife was a reminder to stop at the co-op to get organic strawberry flavored water and organic tortilla chips and mango salsa. Instead, he bought a twelve-pack of soda and a bag of chips at a Safeway. Ana Lee loved chips and soda. It was her birthday, not his wife’s. A second text came in to get a pizza. “Something with veggies on it.” He ordered a pizza with sausage, pepperoni, salami, and olives. He wondered if an olive was a fruit or a vegetable. The third text arrived while he was polishing off his second pint of beer at the pizza joint. “Get some healthy snacks.” He picked up cookies, chocolate milk, and Twizzlers. He also grabbed a six-pack of beer for himself and a packet of dried seaweed snack for his wife.
His wife had frowned at the food spread across the counter. She held up the bag of Twizzlers between her thumb and finger as if she were examining a dead rat by its tail. He pushed the seaweed snack towards her; it made no difference. She didn’t believe in yelling in front of the kids. She was a good mother. The yelling would come later, when the kids were asleep in another room.
Because she raised them on organic, unprocessed whole foods, the sugar, chemicals, and the hormone-laced meat had an immediate effect on the kids. At one point Corbin giggled, screamed, then reached out and grabbed a handful of Ana Lee’s hair and tried to drag her with him as he bolted for the living room. Ana Lee, older, bigger, and stronger, shrieked in pain but didn’t budge. She grabbed her brother’s arm and yanked him back into the table, which knocked over sodas and beer, which soaked the half-eaten slices of pizza and most of the birthday cake—an organic carrot and zucchini beauty of a cake that her mother had baked and painstakingly frosted in cream cheese sweetened with organic sorghum syrup, which was made by an old Deadhead from Georgia and purchased at the Humboldt County Organic Farmers’ Market.
Throughout the evening, the kids screamed then sobbed then laughed then wrestled one another to the floor, knocked over a potted plant, made the dog yelp in terror, sent the family’s sixteen-year-old cat running for its life, and then repeated the process in every room of the house. Throughout it all, Ana Lee’s mother would cast an occasional glance at her husband, her face an imperturbable wall of stone. There would be hell to pay.
In bed that night, Ana Lee’s father felt that he had gotten off light. After the kids collapsed in exhaustion and descended into fitful sleep, his wife threw a slipper at him, called him every name in the book, and told him he should move in with Roger. He thought she would make him sleep on the couch. In bed, she turned her back to him but reached back to gently rub his thigh. It was her way of saying she was sorry for yelling at him. She said she knew that he meant well and that he couldn’t help being a moron. And then turned towards him, pressed her body against his, kissed the back of his neck, and fell asleep. He knew he was a lucky man. He loved his wife more than just about anything. She was a good mother. He felt a love so intense for his kids that sometimes he’d pull over on his drive home from work and sit in his car and cry.
These were the thoughts that were going through his head as he stood at his daughter’s bedroom door the next morning. He could hear the mechanical hum of the garage door closing. He couldn’t remember if his wife said she’d be back in one hour or two. His children, a destructive force of nature in their own right, were angelic in their sleep. Corbin was curled around a stuffed turtle that was missing a leg (it had been torn off during a wild tug of war that left both of them sobbing). It was Corbin’s favorite stuffed animal. It had been Ana Lee’s a few years before. Much of its insides were strewn like popcorn on the floor. The father would have to pick up the stuffing and shove it back into the turtle. His wife would have to sew on the leg, if he could find it. Ana Lee’s torso was on the floor, her legs on the bed. Her nightgown was gathered at her waist, revealing her aqua green Ariel underwear. One of her hands clutched her blanket, and another held a Barbie doll, its head missing. His daughter looked as if she had the slightest trace of a smile. As if she was in the middle of some secret dream that she’d be unwilling to talk about once she awoke. Ana Lee’s father felt a shudder run through him. He imagined her at sixteen. The thought made him smile. In the next instance, it filled him with dread.
Cautiously, the cat—hearing nothing but the sound of a ticking grandfather clock and sensing that no children stirred—made its way back into the living room, curling up on the window sill to sleep. From the kitchen, the dog whined to let someone know it had to be let out to pee. Outside, the coastal fog, which had enveloped Arcata in a thick grey shroud, was starting to thin. Inside, Ana Lee and Corbin slept as the muted light began to fill their room. The father made his way down the hall, in search of a mop and something to scrub the walls with. He popped a Twizzler in his mouth and got to work. His wife would be home soon. This time, he’d get it right.
About the Story
What Happens in Arcata is a story about unconditional love and a father's flailing attempts to please his family. Some of our listeners surely cringed at the father’s mistakes, but who of us would not forgive a former tough guy who “felt a love so intense for his kids that sometimes he would pull over on his drive home from work and sit in his car and cry.”
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