The trailer was packed. We had been ready to hit the road for nearly a half hour. As I listened to my father leave a third and final agitated voicemail for my brother, I wondered if this camping trip was a good idea.
"A lot of things can get worked out in the woods," he said.
An hour later we rolled up to a choice camp site on the Caney Fork — a secluded clearing surrounded by trees and nestled between two watercress fields. We set up camp and spent the rest of the day fly fishing. I hiked far enough up stream to put a river bend between me and the relentless critiques of my casting skills.
Sunset and the smell of a wood fire drew me back to camp where Dad whipped up saffron rice with chicken and vegetables. Delicious. We sat by the fire, Dad absently poking the dirt with his favorite cedar walking stick, me poking the fire with the industrial-size fire poker he'd forged years ago.
Words have rarely flowed easily between us. But the creative urge within my father is something he managed to pass on to me. He explained how he had found the cedar tree limb, stripped away the bark and sanded it until it was buttery smooth. His FJ 40 Land Cruiser was tricked out with bumpers he welded himself.
I thought about the beautiful koi pond he dug in the backyard and the mansion-like coop he built for his fancy chickens. Feeling a sense of closeness, I pulled out my journal, wrote a single line about the wind in the trees, and then passed it to him.
"Here, you write the next line," I said. "We'll keep going until we have a poem."
Along with the breeze came the faint sounds of Latin music — the sounds of migrant workers enjoying the same beautiful evening. I lay back, imagining we were in some exotic foreign land.
Dad passed back the journal. The ink was heavier where, in his unmistakable script, he'd written how nice it would be if it weren't for the "spics."
The spell was broken.
My happy father-daughter fantasy had dissolved into the muck of my worst childhood memories. I reminded myself I wasn't an overwrought teenager and put a leash on my emotions. I calmly asked why he felt compelled to refer to complete strangers with such a hateful word. And why, knowing my feelings on the subject, would he write such a word in my journal?
Before long we were in a full-blown debate. My emotional leash was wearing thin. The first time I cut loose and said "fuck," I got a stern look. The second, I was met with a verbal warning I scarcely noticed. I was getting hot, and nothing drives a point home quite like a good F-bomb. Especially to a Bible-beating bigot spewing about how "niggers" and "wetbacks" are ruining the country and never should have come here in the first place.
Especially when that bigot is my father.
A familiar expression came over his face. One that has always turned my stomach and put a knot in my chest. A dark, condescending smile, lips closed and eyes squinted — and behind it, a warning.
He stopped poking the dirt with his stick and said, "You say that word again, and I'm gonna whop you upside the head with this walking stick."
I was so stunned, it was a moment before I spoke. "I cannot believe you just threatened me with an inanimate object, as if the word 'fuck' is somehow more offensive to you than the word 'ni...'"
The stick came for the side of my head. It wasn't coming with any great speed. I knew he wasn't going to brain me with it, but the fact that it was coming at all sent me lunging for the fire poker as I swatted the stick away from my head.
Trembling, tears welling, I stood locked in a sort of war stance. Iron pressed hard against cedar to form an X.
"Don't say it," he warned. "Don't you say it."
My mind reeled with a thousand F-bombs, all aimed at that nauseating smile — through which what came next broke something in me forever. My father, who used to trace circles on the palm of my hand in church, distinctly pronounced the word "nigger." He said it over and over, until I dropped the poker and ran to my tent. I called my brother to come get me but I didn't know where we were.
I sobbed into my pillow until I heard my father snoring. Then I went and sat by the fire. I watched until every inch of that cedar walking stick burned to ashes.
In the morning we drove home in silence. I got in my car, rolled down the windows and took a deep breath. I made sure he could hear me one last time: