It's Take Your Daughter to Work Day and Lyle has forgotten his daughter. He has left her at home. Alone. To do god knows what with god knows who. Yesterday, Lyle found out that his daughter, Izz, was starting to have sex. She was sexually active. She engaged in sexual activity. She was a bit of a slut, he had heard from a family friend.
"Slut," he had said to the family friend. "Did you just say slut?" The friend owned a restaurant. He said that was the term the boys who worked for him had used.
Lyle sits in his colleague's office, next to his colleague's daughter. He's waiting for Jeff to finish whatever he's working on and to fill him in on what happened in the meeting. He has never really liked Jeff (he's the kind of man who calls Thanksgiving "T-Day") and he has never really liked Jeff's daughter, Candace. She's hyperactive. She's always running amok around the offices after school. If Lyle were her age he'd call her a spaz. He'd say, "chill out, spaz," or something like that.
"It's my first time," she says.
"What?" Lyle says.
"My first time. At Take Your Daughter."
"Welcome," Lyle says.
She has a yellow ledger on her lap and she's taking notes and chewing gum with vigor. It looks like she's munching on cartilage.
"Are you almost done?" he asks Jeff. "What happened already? I need to get back..." Lyle lets his sentence go unfinished, because they both know he has nothing to get back to.
"Where's your daughter?" Candace asks. "Don't you have one?"
Her round face looks up at him. She has short brown hair and a straight, faint line of freckles running down her nose. None of her features really go together. It's as though she has been designed by committee.
"She's sick," he says. "She's home sick." She's a slut, he thinks to himself, and I've left her at home.
"Too bad," she sings. "Sick, sick, sick, sick."
"Can," Jeff says. "Have you found my policy number yet? I don't think so. You want to know what the real world's about? It's about finding policy numbers."
Candace lifts her hand, makes it into a claw, and hisses at her father, then goes back to her yellow ledger, making her mysterious notes.
Lyle looks at Jeff, then at Jeff's daughter. They have the same mean chin and large sad eyes that give them both a look of incompetence and confidence, a dangerous combination. He thinks of his daughter, of what she has in common with him. He's been told the smile and the mouth. Same smile, same mouth.
He should have talked to her last night. After learning what was going on with the boys at the restaurant he stood at the top of her stairwell thinking of ways to begin a conversation, but he kept seeing images of her that made his face hot.
He had memories of her as a baby — changing her diapers and cleaning in between her folds of doughy skin. He remembers her little legs spread open, the white cream he'd press against her rashes. Now she's sixteen and there's another man, other men, tending to her body and these images of her as a baby and a woman made Lyle leave the staircase and run straight to his room where his wife just happened to be changing into a pair of flesh-toned panties, and he thought to himself, oh god, I'm one of them. I'm a boy.
He almost told his wife about their daughter's new pastime, but thought it would sound better if he came to her after having talked to Izz and solving the slut crisis. It was the same thing he did when his children were babies. He'd take care of a situation — diapers, baths, meals, tears, not so much to help the child, but to be able to tell Sarah that he helped the child.
"How old are you now?" he asks Candace.
"Thirteen. That's why I'm allowed at Take Your Daughter to Work for Half a Day."
"My daughter's sixteen," he says.
"That's so cool," she says. "Does she drive?"
"Yes," Lyle says.
"See," she says to her dad. "Sixteen. That's when I get your car and I'll drive to Denver and go to clubs and I'll be all, check this out."
"She drives," Lyle says, "but I get scared thinking about her on these roads. I get scared for her life."
Jeff nods. "See."
"You're not scared for my life."
"I am," Jeff says, a statement that seems to surprise him. "Now cut the chitchat. Observe. Learn."
Candace is quiet and he kind of wished she would bother him more, ask him questions about Izz, her life at sixteen. Lyle tries to remember sixteen, an age where life seemed to take you by the hand and show you all the new cool shit you could start doing. At sixteen he had had sex, but he won't let Izz know that. He tries to see how her having sex is a natural thing, but thinks back to his boyhood, his first dabblings in sexuality — the numerous shower ejaculations picturing Rhonda Geldern in a cashmere bathing suit, and then the other first experiences involving real girls. He remembers Tabitha Clifford touching him in her hot tub (too hot, scalding), and touching her, her vagina, in her backyard tee-pee (primitive, spiritual), and then she gave him head on a chairlift because she was saving herself (he had loved the way she saved herself). Good god. If he was sixteen, then Tabitha had been sixteen, too. But parts of it were so innocent. He remembers sneaking out of his house and walking miles to see her, sometimes just to fall asleep next to her and wake up at dawn to walk home. Perhaps it is natural and lovely: first sex, sex at sixteen. But then it stops. As a high school senior he had the audacity to ask Katie Birch for a blowjob. In college, girls said things like "harder" or worse, "I'm coming!" as if he were a departing bus. Some asked to be slapped. One asked him to put his penis (cock, she called it) in her ass! Margaret Waters of all people! When they were children she had told him to put his ear to the ground and listen for the sounds of hell and now she was asking for a cock in her ass.
The women became like men in their desire. The penis became something to divulge, to handle, whereas when he first began his sexual explorations the penis was kept under wraps, left to throb under his clothes like a red zit — something both parties knew about yet tried their best to ignore.
Jeff closes his laptop and looks at his watch. "Done," he says. "Okay. Meeting. Same old. We need to come up with a name for the advanced terrain. We threw out some ideas. Leaning toward, 'Living Daylights.' Now we need a catch phrase."
"Be All You Can Be," Candace says.
"Where's your head?" Jeff yells. "Be All You Can Be. Come on. It's got to say something about the outdoors. The extreme outdoors. We have to sell the idea of freedom, of exclusive, outdoor, extreme freedom. Something like, Get Outside! Be Extremely Free!"
"That is so tarded," Candace says.
Lyle nods in agreement and Candace smiles at him, spastically.
"What about, 'Don't be a bore. Get outdoors,'" she says.
Jeff doesn't even bother to respond and Lyle just smiles at her. She blows a bubble with her gum and the clear pink ball makes him nostalgic and incredibly sad. He's sad when he sees this young girl. His daughter seems to be bypassing the early sweet stages entirely, and heading right for the sewage, yet how can he guide her back to the beginning of sexual experience. How can he say, "Here, try this first. Fall asleep in his arms. Every now and then you'll wake up at the same time and you'll kiss and fool around and then you'll fall back to sleep again and it will feel good," but how does a father tell a daughter this? He doesn't. He grounds her. He makes her feel ashamed.
He tries to see what Candace is writing and he sees the words, "No fear" and "I want to go higher."
"I got it," Candace says. "Living Daylights: Scare the Shit out of Yourself Before the Altitude Does."
"You can't swear in the copy. Christ." Jeff looks at Lyle and gestures to his daughter. "You believe this?"
"Actually," Lyle says, wanting to make Candace feel good. "You're on the right track. It has to be bold. Clean, but bold."
She looks at her father and smirks. She swings her legs from the chair. They don't reach the ground. "So, this is what you guys do all day?"
"We do other things," Jeff says.
"Like nothing. Keep quiet and watch."
"You need to explain something you do. I need to write my report. Do you chop down trees? Kill ecosystems and whatnot? Are you, like, nature's repo men?"
"Where do you learn this stuff?" her father asks.
"What a communist."
Candace looks at Lyle for an answer. "Well, what do you do?"
He tries to think of what he does, the press he writes to keep the protestors in line, the research on the Boreal Toad, the main hindrance to the expansion. The other day Jeff concluded their toad brainstorming meeting with: "The toad's been around forever. Their time is up."
"I write development ideas," Lyle says. "Then I sort of try to sell these ideas to the public without them thinking they're being sold anything."
"In Aspen they use biodiesel fuel in Snowcats," Candace says.
"So do we," Lyle says. "We just started that."
"Aspen has efficient snowmaking equipment," she says.
"Move to Aspen then," Jeff says. "Go find Hunter Thompson and trip out."
"He's dead," Candace says.
"Well, my bad," Jeff says.
"That equipment only cuts a few million gallons," Lyle says. "Shaves about four off of 160 million gallons of water, but you're right. It's a good public-pleasing policy. Easy pleasing."
"I want to do what you guys do," Candace says. "Sit around and think up ways to trick people and get away with stuff."
Jeff laughs. "Yeah, it's pretty cool. Don't look at me like that, Can. Everyone wants to save the earth at your age. Give it four years. You'll want an Escalade. Then diamonds. Then you'll want a coat that's made out of bunnies and dolphins or some crap."
"We don't trick people," Lyle says. "They make their own choices."
"But you lie in a way," she says.
"No," Lyle says. "I make suggestions for what one should desire."
He wants to ask her questions, too. Are you proud of your work? Do you lie? Do you love your father? Does he influence the bad choices you make? Do you doubt yourself? Why? Why don't you value yourself the way I do?
Candace writes in her notebook and he likes this moment, watching her write what he says. He feels as though he's with his own daughter. He always thought he and his son would have the strongest bond, but he felt closer to Izz. With Cully they were always talking about the same things — gadgets and gear, bikes and snow conditions. They were always hitting each other in the shoulder and their phone conversations were loud and unnatural.
He looks at Candace, almost patting her on the head. "You're right about the slogan. People want to be afraid. They want to feel alive. They want to feel they've really done something in their lives. How about, 'Living Daylights: Dare to Thrive.'"
She writes this down and Lyle is invaded with warmth and pride.
Jeff types something on his computer.
"He's a lot better at this than you, Dad," Candace says.
Jeff looks at his daughter. "I'm taking you back to the adoption agency if you don't shut it."
"I wasn't adopted."
"You will be if I have anything to do about it. Thanks a lot, Lyle. You're making me look real good here in front of the little one. I'm supposed to be inspiring her."
I'm inspiring her, Lyle thinks to himself. I'm capable of inspiring a girl. "I have to talk to her," he says to Candace. "My daughter."
"Busted," Candace says. "Is she in trouble or something?"
"Is she doing that sexting thing?" Jeff asks. "They're all doing that now, luring in the pervs."
"No," Lyle says.
"OxyContin?" Jeff asks.
"No, no, nothing like that."
"She a cutter?"
"No, Jeff. I don't think so." Lyle doesn't even know what these things are. Maybe she is a cutter. Maybe she does do sexting and oxy whatever.
"But she's in trouble, right?" Candace asks.
"Yes," he says. "She's in trouble." Lyle thinks of himself as a boy and as a man. "She's in trouble for the rest of her life."
Jeff stands and looks at his teeth in a small mirror that hangs above a bookshelf of men's health magazines. Lyle sees his hand in his pocket, his knuckles moving, the swell of a ring. His hair is gelled, making his head look like a black shell.
"We're all in trouble," Lyle tries to say lightly. He touches Candace's knee, something his daughter never lets him do anymore — touch her — and he feels a strange love for this other man's daughter, for daughters across America learning what their fathers do and who they are when they're away from home.
Candace looks at his hand on her knee and then screams, "Stranger danger! Stranger danger!" then erupts into laughter.
Jeff walks over to her swivel chair, bends down and grabs her face and holds it so that it's in front of his. He doesn't say anything. He just holds her face, contorting her lips and glares into her watering eyes.
He finally lets go of her mouth and she presses her fingers to her jaw. She stands up and looks at Lyle as if he was the one who hurt her, tricked her. She runs out of the room and Lyle walks to the doorway and watches her run, run down the hall past the board rooms, past the secretaries' cubicles, past the reception desk and headed toward the glass doors and into the world, into the trouble, the tricks and the lies and the suggested desires. He wants to shout: Goodbye! Goodbye! But instead he turns to his colleague and says, "You better go bring her back," and then he follows her trail through the office, heading home to his daughter where he'll act like a repo man and muster the courage to take his own advice.
Kaui Hart Hemmings, copyright 2009, from her forthcoming story collection How To Party with an Infant. Hemmings is the author of a collection of stories, House of Thieves, and a novel, The Descendants. Her novel has been published in five other countries and is currently in development with Fox Searchlight. She lives in Hawaii.