The first time Erin Donnelly walked into a strip bar, she was looking for her father. Pulling her red-blonde hair out of its ponytail holder to make herself look older, she slipped off her Dad’s motorcycle onto the asphalt of the parking lot with a clatter of the boots he’d bought her for riding. She walked with a swagger, like she knew what she was doing, because the bouncer stood, arms crossed over his chest, watching. Though she’d grown taller than most of the boys in eighth grade, Erin knew she could only pass for sixteen, not twenty-one. The bouncer glared, but she convinced him to let her inside, holding a motorcycle helmet in her hand like a talisman that connected her to her father.
Music pumped through the bar. She stared at the bodies of strippers with their slick skin, the glare of yellow lights playing over their muscles, and it seemed she almost knew them as the harbinger of an adulthood that rushed toward her, relentless. She inhaled with a sound sharp as a whistle, forced herself to stay still. Slowly her eyes adjusted to the red candles that lit the back of the bar. Against the far wall, her father sat alone at a half-moon booth with four empty shot glasses in front of him. She crossed the room, aware of the men watching her, and it seemed, suddenly, she wore a Catholic uniform skirt, saddle shoes, not passing for sixteen at all. She kept her head up, walked right to her father and faced him.
“I thought you were just going to the bathroom,” she said.
He looked at her, the muscles of his wide Irish face slack, blue eyes mapped with red. “I wanted a drink. Erin? You’re fine, Erin. Right? You’re fine.”
She sighed, helped him to his feet, watched him stagger to the door of the bar, wondered what she’d say to him about getting the motorcycle home.
“You drive,” he told her when they got to the bike, his words slurring into each other. “Like I taught you. No one will ever know. Ready?”
She swung a leg over the bike in answer. And then she concentrated on pushing the bike up with his weight behind her, pushing the electric start, turning the gas with her right hand. She leaned into a curve that took them out the parking lot and back onto Route 1. Her slender arms cramped from her grip on the handles as the miles ticked by, up the wide highway back from Massachusetts to Maine. Alert to every shift of her father’s weight, she shivered under her leather jacket, ground her teeth, and gripped harder. Finally, an hour later, she steered onto the gravel of their driveway. Behind her, he listed to the side; for a moment she thought the bike would slide out from under them, that they would land on the cold, stone-covered ground, but then she compensated for his weight and braked. As she switched off the headlight, she listened to him breathing, smelled bourbon and sweat.
“Shit Erin,” he said, digging his heels into the gravel with a harsh rasp. “Did you have to take that turn so hard? I think I’m going to puke.”
“Well don’t do it on me,” Erin answered. “You should be grateful I got you here.”
“Yeah, yeah, I’m grateful. Okay, I’m grateful.”
“Because if you ever do this again—”
“You did good,” he told her. “Chip off the old block. I’ll let you drive as much as you want next time. Not just in parking lots, either.”
The porch light came on as he spoke. The front door opened, and her mother stepped outside, white face gleaming in the dark as she peered forward. Her pregnancy swelled under a wool sweater whose ends didn’t quite meet. She must see them, Erin thought, as her mother crossed her arms. Erin froze. Her breath formed clouds as it escaped the plastic visor over her helmet. She watched, her eyes dilating, as the shadow of her mother’s body fell toward them. Behind her mother the house—pristine, Maine clapboard, hardwood floors in large rooms—stretched like a cavern. Erin didn’t need to look to know what she’d see: the rise of her mother’s blonde head, the stiff neck and spine, the way her lips thinned to a white line, the way she stood, a statue, unmoving. Erin wanted to call out, to beg, even just to say, I know I’m too young to drive, but I brought him home to you.
Her father gripped her shoulders from behind; Erin dug her heels in, grabbed the handlebars to keep the bike from falling. He dragged a leg over the bike and managed to stand, swaying. Erin sighed, pulled off her helmet, and walked toward her mother, trying not to look at that white face with its two high spots of color. As she hurried by, her mother placed a hand on Erin’s back, gave her one hard shove. Erin stumbled, fell, and scrambled back to her feet.
“You couldn’t keep him from drinking?” her mother said.
Erin glanced back over her shoulder, still moving toward the first of the steps upstairs. Her father already stood in the doorway behind her. She sighed with relief.
“Nice, Thomas,” her mother said.
Red hair flattened from the helmet, his paunch pushing forward against the bright gold zipper on his leather jacket, Thomas swayed forward. His face changed, lips slackening as they had in the strip bar. His thick fingers reached up and tweaked her mother’s breast.
“Nice, Janet,” he said, and laughed.
Erin stared. Her father, who took her riding, who bought her leather, her father, who drank, but not like this, not when he took her out on the bike, her father who, riding, threw his head back and sang Irish folk songs into the wind…Erin’s boots banged up the steps, away from both of them. She could hear him reeling into the kitchen, and her mother quietly making her way up the stairs.
In her room, Erin rubbed her feet, tried to stretch the painful cramps from her hands and forearms, tried not to think of how her mother would make her pay. Sins of the fathers, she thought, shivering. She pulled on a sweatshirt, long underwear, fleece pants. She stood, then, went to the window and watched clouds file past the moon’s dingy pearl surface. Around her the sounds of the house stilled; she heard her father’s footsteps in the hall, and then, for a while, nothing. She waited, her body tense and cold.
Later—how much later she didn’t know—she heard the sound of whimpering, coming through the wall muffled, but high-pitched. She couldn’t breathe. The sound continued, like the mewing of a feral cat, crying over its wounds. Erin dug her knuckles into her forehead. She knew she should be strong, like a hero, like Jeanne d’Arc, like Harriet Tubman, like King Arthur, someone who couldn’t stand to see a woman wronged. Dad, she thought, just once, like a cry, because he was the one who had taught her strength. She started to shake. She took one footstep, then another. Made it to the center of the room. She knew if she could just keep moving, what she would find when she knocked on her parents’ door. She thought of her mother’s belly, of the child that would be her brother or sister. Her body flattened by night, by sound, she took another step, and then another, heard the whimpers grow louder as she stepped into the hall. She walked quickly to her parents’ bedroom, knowing if she waited any longer, she’d lose her nerve. She knocked. The sound stilled. No one answered.
Erin knocked again, loudly, her knuckles rapping on the thick wood until they hurt. She heard her father’s footsteps approaching. And then the door opened into the rest of her life.