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Do Me, Do My Roots

It's about healing.
After a couple of rough years, Emily is finally getting things back together. She doesn't need to re-do everything at work three times, her young daughter's soccer uniform is almost always clean the day of a game, and meals are pretty darn reliable, too. But hey, becoming a widow at thirty-three kind of knocks the starch out of you.
It's about family.
Then Emily's dad has an Event (only her mom would call a minor heart attack that -- what is it, a bar mitzvah?). Next, her sister Claudia's ex-husband starts stealing their kids' Ritalin for the high -- and wouldn't you replace it with The Pill to teach him a lesson? (His unexpected, uh, frontal development was just a howlingly funny bonus -- honest.) And then Emily's relentlessly sensible oldest sister, Leah, dumps her businessman fiancé for a rock musician.
It's about never letting them see your gray.
Now Jake, Emily's best friend, seems to be spending a lot of time at her house. Which she likes way too much. Which is kind of confusing. So what's a girl to do, but call an emergency meeting of the sisters' monthly hair-color-and-gossip session, to make the world seem sane again?

Chapter One: There Are Some Events to Which You Don't Want to Be Invited


One part Apricot Glaze (#38), one part Titian Red (#74), one part developer. Forty minutes. Some people are born to be redheads even though they're not born redheads.


Two parts Medium Ash Brown (#28), one part developer. Twenty minutes. Roots a little light, but acceptable. Is acceptable good enough? We say no: we will not bow down to hair color mediocrity.

My alarm clock read 2:47 AM when the phone jarred me awake. After I'd hit the snooze button several times in a futile attempt to get the noise to stop and finally answered the phone, my mother's voice chirped unnaturally brightly into my ear. "Hello, dear. Did I wake you?"

"Well, yeah, it's almost three o'clock in the morning." In these situations, it's my usual practice to lie. Oh, no, I'll say. Of course I wasn't sleeping at 6:00 AM on a Saturday morning on one of those rarest of days that my daughter might actually sleep in. Why, I've already dusted and vacuumed the house and was getting ready to do push-ups.

Why do I do this? I have no idea.

Is there any shame to sleeping? There are news reports all the time about how sleep deprived we are, and how dangerous it is with drivers falling asleep at the wheel and machine operators pushing the wrong buttons. I'm actually performing a public service by sleeping. Maybe I'm worried that they'll think I'm lazy. At three o'clock in the morning, however, I figured subterfuge was pointless.

"I'm sorry, dear. It's just that..." Here she paused and tittered. No one can titter quite like my mother when under stress. Many have tried and failed. I myself usually let out horrible wheezy laughs or occasionally an hysterical squeal, but I can't titter worth a damn. "Well, your father has had an event."

An event? What, did he suddenly get up at two in the morning and decide to have a bar mitzvah, and they were calling to invite me?

"Mama," I said. "What are you talking about?"

"Oh, dear, well, it's just..." Her tone brightened more; soon she'd be chittering like a demented squirrel. "Your sister's here. I'll let her explain."

I listened to the phone being passed, hugging my knees under the blanket. My sister Leah's terse voice came over the line. "Daddy's had a heart attack. Find some place to park Abby and get your ass to the hospital."

I found them behind curtain number seven in the ER. Trust me, if Monty Hall had ever offered this as an option, Let's Make a Deal would have been a much tenser show. Choose Curtain Number One and you win an all-expense-paid vacation to beautiful Hawaii. Choose Curtain Number Two and you get a lifetime supply of Rice-A-Roni, the San Francisco Treat. Choose Curtain Number Three and we'll ram a really big needle into your wrist and shove a tube up...well, you get the point.

Tonight behind Curtain Number Seven, my sisters and mother sat watching my father's heartbeat on a monitor screen with more interest than they'd jointly showed in anything since the moon walk.

I kissed my father's forehead. It felt clammy against my lips. He looked kind of yellow and a lot smaller than he had the day before. "How ya doin', Daddy?"

He shrugged. "I've been better."

Under the circumstances, it seemed as good an answer as any.

Claudia jumped up and gave me a quick hug. She looked like she'd been dressed for hours. She had on a pair of khaki flat-front pants and a really cute sweater. Her makeup looked perfect and her hair didn't even look like she'd slept on it.

I had pulled on a pair of jeans under the oversize thermal shirt I'd worn to bed and thought I'd done the world a favor by brushing my teeth. Over that, I had on a hooded zip-front sweatshirt and one of Vince's old baseball jackets. I'd pulled my barely brushed hair back into a ponytail and pulled a baseball cap on over that. Mascara hadn't crossed my mind, much less my lashes.

"Where's Abby?" Claudia wanted to know.

"I wrapped her up in a blanket and took her to Kim's. She never even woke all the way up. I hope she doesn't wake up there and freak out."

Claudia gave me a sympathetic grimace. Her boys are old enough to stay alone.

"Come on into the hallway. I'll fill you in."

We stepped out from behind the curtain and walked a few steps on the yellowed linoleum. The glare and hum from the fluorescent lights were already starting to get to me. "Exactly how much time did Mama spend with the admitting clerk?" I asked.

"I'm not sure. Why?"

"Because when I stopped to ask how to find you guys, she said, 'You must be Emily.' Then she hugged me and offered me condolences on my loss."

"She advised me to sue Mark for more child support." Claudia popped her gum. There's something about the way she chews gum that always fascinates me. Maybe it's because her mouth is such a perfect little cupid's bow and her lips are so raspberry red. Abby had tried to lick them once when she was a baby, as if they were some kind of lollipop. I find myself mesmerized by Claudia's mouth when she pops her gum like that. I stared at it now, barely registering the words she spoke while I watched her lips move. It's like when you're driving and you find yourself more caught up in the rhythm of the broken yellow line in the middle of the road than in what's actually on the road in front of you.

The unending buzz from the light was like a siren call to the headache that was starting in my right temple. "Spread," it whispered. "Encircle her whole head." My eyes felt gritty.

"So what's the deal with Daddy?"

"Oh, yeah." Claudia jumped as if the question came out of nowhere. "They think he's had a small heart attack. It doesn't look like there's any permanent heart damage, but it is a warning."

"A warning of what?"

"I don't know, Emily. They have to do more tests."

"What kind of tests?" I started to feel a little frantic; I didn't like the sound of any of this. Heart attacks? Damage to heart muscles? Tests? The thought of sitting in waiting rooms again, hoping a doctor would come with a little good news, had my skin prickling. My lungs tightened at the memory of the hours I'd spent in this hospital and how little they were able to do in the end.

"Emily, I don't know! He's only been here an hour and I only got here about fifteen minutes ahead of you. Now chill out. I know it's hard for you to be here, but you're going to have to ride this out with the rest of us. Try just to deal with what's in front of you."

I felt tears start to slip out underneath my lids. I hadn't even felt them start. No chance to fight them at all. "Sorry," I mumbled.

She hugged me again. Have I mentioned that my sister Claudia gives the best hugs ever? "It's all right. Let's go sit with the others."

When we got back, a doctor who didn't look old enough to drive was checking out all the readouts from the various parts of my father's body that were hooked up to machines. I gathered from the way his hands trembled that he'd either had way too much coffee or Leah had already been working him over. Even at four o'clock in the morning with her hair in a jumble, she can be pretty formidable.

Claudia said hello and the doctor turned to smile at us. It was a mistake. I understand the need for orthodontia, but this poor guy's braces made even Doogie Howser jokes something beyond a cheap shot.

"Dr. Hill is an M.D., Ph.D. from Northwestern," my mother informed us with a proprietary note in her voice. She has been wearing her dark, remarkably more-pepper-than-salt hair in the same no-nonsense way since I was in diapers. It's a sensible cut. Short, but not too short. Takes advantage of her natural wave, but not too curly. My mother doesn't like a lot of curls. Or a lot of frills. She likes things simple and straightforward. She likes things that make sense. She likes for men and women in their thirties to be married to people of approximately the same age, socioeconomic background, religion, and color as themselves.

She was clearly revving up to fix one of my sisters up with Dr. Metal Mouth, even though he looked young enough to be jailbait. I was grateful that she generally left me alone these days, though she'd started making noises about Derek Zaretsky, a boy that I'd hated since we used to carpool with his family to third-grade Sunday School, and saw no reason to like any better now that he and his wife had just divorced. He was, however, a stockbroker, which made him third only to a doctor or a lawyer as a son-in-law candidate. She seemed to have missed the fact that Derek had stopped growing in fifth grade or so and I now towered over him by about five inches, or that he was still struggling with that whole adolescent skin thing. She claimed that oily skin would help him age well by delaying wrinkles.

Claudia jumped in to save the day before Mama got going with introducing Braces Boy to her single daughters.

Claudia is an emergency room nurse and she knows all the right questions to ask. Suddenly things moved smoothly. Nurses filled out forms and made phone calls. Orderlies showed up and pushed beds. My father checked into a room. We trooped wearily down the halls, carrying the plastic bag that held his clothes and shoes.

His belongings seemed pathetic enclosed in that bag. The shoes, pants, and shirts looked forlorn and abandoned somehow. As if Daddy hadn't changed clothes but had shed them instead; left them behind him the way a butterfly leaves a cocoon or a snake leaves an outgrown skin.

The few windows we passed reflected our sad little parade back at us against the complete blackness outside. It was still the middle of the night. Inside, everything was overly lit, like it always is in hospitals. Mama's sensible shoes -- I think she and her friends could single-handedly keep Rockport in business -- made little squeaking noises on the linoleum floor. Somehow this all made me amazingly weary. The lights, the squeaking shoes, the beep beep of machines as we walked passed the semi-open doors of patients sleeping that in-between sleep that people sleep in hospitals...I wanted to lie down on the floor and doze off myself. We kept walking.

Daddy looked so tiny in the hospital bed. I remember when I thought he was the biggest, strongest man on earth, when he'd lift me up in the air and I'd feel like I was flying. Part of me still wanted to think that, still wanted him to lift me over his head while I squealed and giggled. He can't even do that to Abby anymore. Sometimes reality just sucks.

We lined up in age order to kiss him good night, just like we had when we were little girls. Leah first, then Claudia, then me. I kissed his forehead and whispered, "Good night, Daddy." I didn't trust my voice not to waver if I said it any louder.

He grabbed my hand and pressed it against his cheek. The light gray stubble scratched my hand. "Don't work yourself up. This will be all right."

I blinked and tried not to let my chin quiver. "Sure it will. I'm just tired." I tried to smile.

He tried to smile back.

Neither of us achieved much success.

We split up in the parking lot. Leah followed my mother home, to make sure she got there all right. Knowing Leah, she probably went in and made her a cup of tea, too, yet would still be at her desk by 8:30 AM I retrieved Abby from my friend Kim's house and tucked her back into bed. She never stopped snoring. I doubted if she'd remember any of it the next day. I wished I wouldn't. I crawled back into my own bed, pulled the blankets up to my neck, and started to shake.

Copyright © 2004 by Eileen Rendahl
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Eileen Rendahl is the author of the Downtown Press novels Balancing in High Heels and Do Me, Do My Roots, which was nominated for a RITA Award. Her short fiction appears in the New Year's story collection In One Year and Out the Other. She lives near her tight-knit family in California.

More books from this author: Eileen Rendahl