The Bad Project

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Chapter 25. Daddy’s Girl/Crystal

Towards the end of October, Crystal dreamed she heard her Dad’s voice calling her, on a high note, then a lower note, “Crys---tal! Crys---tal! Crys—tal! C’…mon!” He sounded just like he used to when she was six or seven and he’d call her to come home from playing with friends around the neighborhood. In the dreams, she would try to go in the direction of his call, but she couldn’t find him. Sometimes people were in the way, lots of people, like a stream coming out of the New York subway, running into her rudely while she was trying to go the other way. Sometimes it was in the woods and she ran into trees as she dodged around, the woods getting deeper and deeper with no outlet, while the sound of his voice got fainter and fainter as she ran towards it. But she never found him, or even saw him in the distance.

Whenever she woke up from one of these dreams, she got up. She had to drink hot tea, hold the cup with both hands, breathe in the hot vapor with her eyes closed. Both of her bare feet were on the floor and she imagined growing roots down into the ground below, feeling the earth. She took the idea of being grounded literally, and used the image to calm herself.

“No, honey, you don’t want me to embarrass you at that refined college,” her father had said in their last phone conversation before she left for Carson. She remembered him before her disaster, how he’d kid around with her and Jason, test them on what they remembered about the TV news show from the day before. He always remembered jokes. Crystal envied him that. She usually forgot the punch line. Her dad sat forward in his chair when he started to tell them a joke, and right before the punch line, he leaned his head back and half-closed his eyes. She knew that, so she was always ready to laugh. She loved to hear him sing, too. He sang solos at church and his shower concerts ranged from raucous to sublime.

She knew he was proud of her for getting into one of the most competitive academic colleges in the country, even if it was only twenty miles from home. But it felt much farther away. She could hardly believe she’d been at Carson for months, not years.

Crystal opened her red notebook. She closed it again. It wasn’t the right place for these thoughts. She sat and stared into space for a while. A tear rolled down her cheek. She remembered when Dad first started working two jobs, after the judge’s verdict. That civil damages trial was such a travesty, had been so unfair. She tried to tell herself again that it wasn’t her fault, that Ritz’s blindness wasn’t her fault, that her dad’s second job wasn’t her fault. But she wasn’t convinced, on the deepest level. The words made sense, but they didn’t fit her feelings about reality.

She thought again about her dad and what her dream was trying to tell her. She wanted to be in contact with her dad, but he seemed to be resisting that contact. She told herself, “I bet he’s ashamed of himself. He wants me to get a clean start. He just wants me to study and to succeed, same as always, to learn that biology background so I can be a doctor. He wants me to be like Jason, to break through barriers and show that black people can do anything. Especially if it involves math, hard problems, serious thinking.”

She had always enjoyed showing Dad her report cards. He’d say, “All A’s again? Tell me how you got an A in algebra now. That’s hard.” She loved being praised for what she herself was most proud of. But now, she’d have to wait to see her dad until she went home for fall break. Even then, he might be working so much she’d have to talk with him on the phone instead of in person.

Crystal could hear Patty, one of her high school friends, inside her head, saying, “Honey, you don’t have no dreams your ownself. You just using you Dad’s dreams warmed up.” Dad never had the kind of medical training that Crystal planned to get. Even though he was a physical therapist, none of the agencies was interested in sending him to Ethiopia. When he was growing up, his family only had what they could grow, to eat or to sell, and a little money her grandpa had made as a preacher and teacher on the side. There was no money for international travel. She had opportunities that he probably hadn’t even been able to imagine when he was her age.

Crystal thought, “I’m sure it’s my dream, not just Dad’s. I’ve read so much about Ethiopia. I can see myself there, helping sick and injured people and taking photographs in my spare time. And I’m really good at science.” She sat thinking about her Dad’s childhood years, back in high school in Indianola, Mississippi.

Crystal remembered her Mom, and thought that though she was gentle and kind, she had that assertive streak that her Dad had lacked most of the time. She remembered her mom’s tiny, determined chin. When she was after something, she stuck that chin out and you knew you might as well forget arguing about it. Dad had accepted the put-down from his friends, family, and teachers way back when, and instead of a doctor, he had become a very successful physical therapist.

Maybe he couldn’t have overcome those obstacles even if he had been assertive. Things had been very bad for African Americans back in Mississippi. He might even have been killed for being “uppity,” an adjective Crystal always thought of as a compliment. She had read To Kill a Mockingbird and Witness in Philadelphia in high school, and seen a movie about the killing of Medgar Evers, and the thought of all that hate against inoffensive black people was chilling to her.

One reason Africa attracted her was that black people would be the norm there. She thought that her feelings about Africa were sort of like her Jewish high school friend Rachel’s feelings. “I want to be the default, like everyone else, not something different,” Rachel had said, explaining why she wanted to visit Israel, and maybe to stay there permanently. In high school, most of the students were black. There were only two or three Jewish girls there. But here, there were only about 30 black people in the whole school of 2000 students, a tiny minority. Two of her classes had no black people at all in them besides Crystal, and it felt very strange.

She started thinking about her roommate, and the conversation they had about their dreams for their futures. It was interesting to her that Marianne didn’t like to use her middle, Chinese name, MeiLing, which Crystal thought was musical and attractive. She didn’t have the slightest desire to go to China. Marianne had been to Shanghai as a child, but not since she was six years old. She had read books about it. Once she asked Crystal, “Why would I want to go live in a place that disrespects woman so completely? I want to be like Virginia Woolf, my own person, not an object belonging to some man in China.”

Crystal thought the way Marianne let Liu boss her around recreated some of that atmosphere, but she couldn’t say any more about Liu, Marianne was so defensive about him. She seemed to need a boyfriend, and Liu was spending a lot of time with her, not just weekend dates but during the day time too, whenever she wasn’t in class.

The roommates still ate dinner together two or three times a week, though, when Liu was in Monterey Park. And once Marianne and Liu had taken Crystal over to Monterey Park for a dim sum lunch. Liu tried to be friendly. He helped Crystal learn about eating with chop sticks and poured her tea. She thought some of the steamed seafood in sticky, semi-raw dough wrappers wasn’t very tasty, but she enjoyed the barbeque buns called “Char Su Bao” and she especially loved the egg custard tarts, “Dan Taat” to the ladies rolling their carts past.

She almost liked Liu after that lunch, at least for a while. But his shifty eyes, and the way he licked his lips when he looked at Marianne, still reminded her of her disaster and kept her on edge. She didn’t want him to hurt Marianne in the ways she had been hurt. At the same time, she was afraid her thoughts on the subject of sex were not very normal.

Over fall break, Thursday through Sunday, October 21-24, Crystal planned to go home. Marianne and Liu were going with the Asian American Club on a retreat to a mountain house that Carson owned, perched in the Santa Monica Mountains with views of mountain meadows, streams, and high peaks, so they were told. Marianne promised to take some pictures.

Crystal got a ride home with Cathy Rosen, a girl from the next entry who lived in San Bernardino. She had advertised on a Rides Wanted bulletin board and offered to help pay for gas. Cathy said it was no trouble to drop her off in Altadena on her way out to the East side. She directed Cathy to get off on Fair Oaks/Marengo exit and take up the hill to the top of Lincoln where Grandma lived. Cathy said, “Gee, Altadena is almost rural, huh? I always thought it was as built up as Pasadena.”

Crystal said, “When we were real little, there was a pony in the field across from Grandma’s. Now it’s a couple of miles to the area where people still keep horses. But there’s kind of a western cowboy flavor to Altadena. Zane Grey was from here, wrote a lot of Western novels way back when.” She paid Cathy for the gas and dragged her suitcase out of the trunk. Cathy said she could come by for Crystal at about 5 PM on Sunday, which was just fine with her.

Crystal barely saw her Grandma’s abundant petunias in the beds beside the cement porch steps in her rush to get inside. After her big hug, Grandma held Crystal at arm’s length to look her over. “You look peaked, girl,” Grandma said. “I’mona hafta feed you up some.”

“Oh, well, maybe I have lost a little weight,” Crystal said. “The food in the dining halls isn’t always so great.”

Grandma had lemonade and sugar cookies, her old favorites. It was nice to be treated like she was six instead of nineteen, for once. In the living room, the plush red couch still prickled her legs, and the flowered drapes with their gold cords were just as fancy as when she’d left. “Home, hooray!” she said, relaxing back on the couch.

She had four days with Grandma to talk nonsense to her, remind her of the fun they always had, bake cookies, and talk with her Dad on the phone on Saturday afternoon. He slept there, but only about five hours a night. He came and went with no noise that Crystal could detect, almost like he had gone out of existence to another plane. But at least, here at Grandma’s she would have no worries about Marianne’s Bad Project, what Liu had in mind, or Bronnie and where that relationship might be going. She’d feel like a new woman when she got back to college.

She was excited but also a little fearful about talking with her Dad. He didn’t want to visit Crystal at Carson, and he hadn’t even wanted to talk with her on the phone after she went there. Even before she left for college, all he’d been willing to do on the phone was to say he loved and missed her. He worked every waking hour, with the two jobs he had to help with the Ritz trial award plus the third job he had to help pay for Crystal’s tuition and residence hall costs. It was very awkward. The awful scene in the basement with Ritz and Zuni hung between the two of them, and she felt guilty for his situation, although she told herself again she couldn’t have prevented what happened. She only wished she could believe her own assurances about it. Underneath, she was still convinced she could have prevented the attack and alleviated all of this pain and grief. She and Grandma sat on the sofa Saturday afternoon waiting for the phone to ring. Time stretched out before them like a desert highway.

Crystal wove her fingers together and twiddled her thumbs.

“Stop that. Are you nervous?”

“Yes, I am.”

“Why’s that?”

“I don’t know, Grandma.”

“Is it something about Leroy?”

Crystal thought it over for a minute. Then she said, “Dad is really working himself to death because he rescued me.”

“No, no. He’s doin’ that because of that turr’ble temper he always had.” Grandma got up and brought a deep bowl of snap beans and a small plastic bag out from the kitchen. She sat next to Crystal and they both began to snap off the ends of the beans and break them into short pieces, putting the ends into the plastic bag and the bean pieces back into the bowl.

Grandma said, “If Leroy could control himself, he could’ve just knocked out those chumps and then he’d been fine. But he had to go and hit that one boy over the head with a pipe. I guess he just went wild when he saw what they was doing to you, and you all hurt lyin’ there on the floor.”

Crtysal froze. Was Grandma going to talk about the rape? Grandma said, “Even still, he might not been hit with that lawsuit if the boy’s no-’count deadbeat mom and his grandma and that football coach and the parents of them other football players didn’t testify what a good boy he was. The one who went blind. And he wasn’t. He was a turr’ble boy, wasn’t he?”

“Yes.” Crystal’s head was bent over the beans, and developed a rhythm of bean-snapping, trying to distract her mind to prevent images of the dim basement rag heap from jumping to the front. She felt an urge to tell Grandma one of her deepest fears. “You’re right. Ritz was a bad boy. He and Zuni hurt me so bad, not just physically, Grandma. How can I trust any men again?”

Crystal looked up to see if Grandma was shocked, but Grandma nodded to her and smiled. Her hands were relaxed on her lap. She said, “Honey, time heals all. I dunno how long you gonna hafta wait, though. It may take till a special man, one you can’t resist, come along into your life. Maybe Jason’ll have some kids and you might be an aunt but not a mama for a long time, girl. I know it hurts. I missed the miz’ble experience, but Lida, my best friend, she had to bear it. She married when she about forty, finally felt like she laid it by.” Grandma stopped popping beans, hummed a tune from her past, and rocked back and forth hugging herself. Crystal got up and hugged her, and then sat back down.

“Thanks, Grandma, I wish I knew Lida. I’m glad you told me about her.” Crystal felt like her smile was too wide, her mouth couldn’t even accommodate it. Muscles in her neck that had been contracted before expanded, felt warm, and relaxed. She continued popping apart green beans, falling back into her rhythm.

“I wish so much it never happened,” Grandma said, “but we have to put up with things here in this valley of sorrow, and when we put up with them good, we get our reward,” she said. “I love you and wish I could take it away, and I so wish I could get Leroy out of working all the time, but I can’t. We just gotta live through it.”

Crystal sucked in a deep breath and said, “Why does Dad push me and Jason away? He almost acts like he doesn’t want to be around us any more.”

“I dunno. But if I guessed, maybe he wants to make up for doing something he knows he shouldn’t have done. At his age, he ought to know you can’t take nothing back. Paying back the universe don’t work. The damage is done, might as well get some joy out of life. But he thinks eating up more misery makes up for it someway.”

“I thought it was like that. Is there anything I can do to help him stop?”

“We just have to wait him out. At some point, his guilt gulpin’ will come to an end and he’ll pull out of being so miserable.”

“Is he afraid people won’t respect him if they know about those other jobs he works?”

“I think so. He worked hard to be a physical therapist, and he has his regular sports clients and like that. That job give him his self respect. So the physical labor of those two other jobs, it feels low class to him. He thought he done finished with that stuff and got to do just intelligent, clean work when he did the training for his real job.”

“He’s such a wonderful person, Grandma. I miss him. I hope he gives up being miserable soon.”

“Me too. Leroy was my favorite, though I shouldn’t say so, and I hate to see him down so low.”

The phone rang. Both Crystal and her Grandma looked at it in surprise, although they were sitting there waiting for it to ring. Their conversation had taken them to other times and places, but here was Dad calling, and Grandma picked it up.


“Hello, Mama,” Crystal heard her Dad’s resonant voice. She thought about him singing bass in the church choir, and she felt choked up. She cradled her cheek on her hand. Grandma said how much they missed him. “Leroy, you eat right over there t’Carpet Mall now?” she asked.Crystal heard a giant laugh. “This place isn’t famous for its food, Mama. Just getting to eat is a break from the work. It’s mainly that it’s so boring. All I got to do is to think about what I should have done different. It’s so hard. I’d give a lot for a chance to hug you, Crystal, and Jason. But that’s not where I am. I just have to put up with it. But don’t you come over here now. I’ll see you when I get home.”

Now Grandma had tears leaking down from both eyes. She didn’t even try to wipe them away. She said, ’Oh Leroy, I’m so sorry. I shoulda beat that temper outa you when I had the chance.”

Crystal didn’t hear what he said, but Grandma looked grim and sad. Then she said, “Here’s Crystal settin’ right b’side me, doncha wanta say hi?” Evidently he agreed, because she handed Crystal the phone.

“Hi baby, I love you. You liking college?”

“Yes, I have good classes and I have an A in Chemistry,” she said, her voice sounding husky. “I really miss you. I would love to hear you sing.” To make enough to send Crystal to Carson, even with her scholarship, Leroy worked about 70 hours a week between all three jobs. Why wouldn’t he let her at least come over and see him at work? Maybe he was trying to punish himself more by keeping her and Jason away from him, not letting them visit him at work. He said he didn’t want to spoil their lives, or sometimes he said that he might get fired if he talked too much. But Crystal thought a quick hug would not be a problem, except to his judgmental mind.

It was silent so long Crystal thought maybe she’d made a mistake to mention singing. Maybe he didn’t ever have a chance to sing any more. Then he cleared his throat and said, “Singing is the best thing about my life. I sing in a gospel choir at church in my little bit of free time on Wednesday night. I don’t know if I could make it except for that.” He sounded choked up.

“Oh, Dad, I sing in gospel choir too, on Wednesday nights. I will pray for you with them every week.”

“Oh, no, don’t you ever tell them about me. Pretend I don’t exist. Sometimes I have bad dreams about your friends finding out I have to work these degrading jobs and I hate the thought.”

“Dad, I can say you need prayers without saying anything about why. Others in the choir do that. I want so much to say your name. I love you.”

“I have to go now, Crystal. Tell Jason and Grandma how much I miss you all and love you. Good bye.” The click didn’t sound quite so final.

Crystal sat thinking about the conversations she’d had this day. Somehow, she felt a lot better. She could talk with Grandma about Dad, and he hadn’t said that she couldn’t pray for him without naming his situation, had he? So she would. It felt very empowering to think of being able to let thoughts of her Dad into her day time life, not just hear him calling in her dreams. And she would ponder the wise words of her grandma and try to take them to heart. She had a whole lot of living to draw on for her wisdom. Crystal felt thankful that Grandma had talked with her about the rape, and hopeful that if she just waited for time to heal them, if she tried not to dwell on the darkness, things would come around in the end.

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