Potato by Patrick McNeil

Aimee Ray

Once our father finally came out, six years after the divorce and fifty-something years old, she was anxious to rebuild a life for herself, and that meant having us over for dinners again. Once a month we went, Lindsey and Timmy and me, to meet our father where she was: a spare bedroom in Nancy’s house. To hear Dad tell it, Nancy was a dear friend, she was family, even if we had never heard of her. She might have only been the latest in a series of friends putting our father up, except that it was here in the haven of Nancy’s house, in the little bedroom her son had grown up in, that Dad found the heart to try on her gender and walk out the door without tearing it off first.

I was twenty-one, which isn’t so young, but to me that room was no safe space. The stuffed animals on her bed, the California Raisins figurines on her dresser, the sticker-words across the top of that full-body mirror, YOU ARE BEAUTIFUL. I remember thinking, and hating thinking: This is the room of an adolescent girl. This is what my dad has become. All those changes. The rest of Nancy’s house was lovely, except that Dad filled it with her obnoxious mix CDs. I remember TLC’s “Unpretty” and Christina Aguilera’s “Reflections” (the one from Mulan). As a respite, I’d bring Timmy down to Nancy’s backyard and we’d throw a potato at each other.

There’s this scene in Braveheart where William Wallace stands in a field and lets a bigger man throw a pretty big rock at him. “I will not move,” he says. The bigger man calls his bluff and misses. Timmy and I would stand like that in Nancy’s backyard, saying in our Scottish accents over and over, “I will not,” trading underhand tosses. There was a point system: three points for a body hit, one for the legs, and two for the arms, which we spread like Jesus. If the potato came at your face, you were allowed to duck, but if you closed your eyes and took the hit, it was negative five for the thrower. Timmy was twelve. He almost never flinched.

We’d play until dinner, hunting through the ivy patch every few throws. By then, the potato would be leaking, leaving wet spots on our clothes. Whatever eyes it had would have broken off. Lindsey kept score from the porch, inflating Timmy’s numbers. “I’m keeping it an honest man’s game,” she’d yell. We always had breakfast for dinner—pancakes, sausage, chocolate milk, our favorites growing up. Nancy did all the work at the table, keeping conversation going, asking about school, sports, friends. All the questions Dad couldn’t ask. Not without admitting that she’d stopped coming around. Not without acknowledging she still hadn’t been invited back. After dinner we said goodbye, see you next month.

Then, one month, Dad invited her New Friends. That’s what she called her trans friends back then, her New Friends, back when everything was new. I remember her wearing a tie-dye sun-dress and a wig, which I didn’t fully get, since her real hair was already long. One New Friend told us at dinner how she was a sniper in Vietnam, and I remember Dad giving us this look, like, See? We are cool, we are something. I hated that look because of what it implied. That we didn’t think she was anything to begin with.

But that’s not what I want to remember, that dinner. I want to remember the scene before the New Friends arrived, Timmy and I at fifteen paces. Nancy’s backyard, all ivy and birdfeeders, Lindsey banging on a harmonica she found in the house. The quiet to follow as Dad put out her cigarette and cleared her throat.

“I just want you to know,” she said, “that when my friends get here, I’m not Dad. I’m Sue.”

It was Timmy – not Lindsey, the stubborn one, or me, the oldest, but Timmy who said, “No. I’m not calling you anything but Dad.”

We all looked at Timmy and Timmy didn’t flinch. Negative five for Dad.

All we had done up until then was flinch. But in the months to come, and in all the years since, we would begin to make room for Sue, like Nancy had done. The name means more to her than it does to us, we’d remind ourselves—what do we care what name she uses? We who love her, after all. But who could say what it meant to Timmy, when Dad introduced us to her New Friends as her children, to be able to say “Dad” back?

Meet the Contributor
Patrick McNeilPatrick McNeil’s fiction and nonfiction have appeared or are forthcoming in Fresh.ink, Philadelphia Stories, Cleaver Magazine, and more. He is the organizer of the Backyard Writers Workshop and the founder of the Writers Retreat in Tufo, Italy.

STORY IMAGE CREDIT: Flickr Creative Commons/Aimee Ray

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