BY NAOMI ULSTED
When the revolving doors of the Marriott lobby spun, a gust of cool Alaskan night air blew in and along with it, a teenage girl making a beeline towards me. Her blouse was too thin for the weather and her face was tearstained. I stopped trying to Google FedEx. She swiftly sat down next to me, smelling of perfume and sour alcohol. "Can you call my dad for me?" she asked hurriedly.
"Sure," I responded without thinking. I dialed the number she gave me. "I’ll give the phone to you when he answers." The front desk worker was eyeing us from behind the counter. She wore a crisp suit and the generous smile she’d worn when I checked in earlier was gone. There was no answer. The clerk came out from behind the counter and began walking toward us, her heels clicking on the tile. The girl darted up and out the door.
"I’m sorry," began the clerk. I wondered for what. For allowing this broken part of Anchorage to slide past the doors and infiltrate the sterile lobby?
"It’s okay," I replied, cutting her off and went after the girl. I caught up with her just past the valet stand. "Wait, what’s wrong? Do you need help?"
She turned to me and strands of dark hair fell into her face. Her eyes looked past me, darted around the area. The valet driver watched us. "Someone’s after me," she said furtively. I looked out across the parking lot, down the street toward the mall, and then behind me toward a coffee shop. It was almost 9:30 at night and the streets were vacant. "Please, I can’t stay here. I need my dad," she said plaintively, her eyes filling with tears as she swayed slightly.
"Let me try again," I said dialing the number, willing a protective, kind male voice to answer. No one answered. "What your address?" I asked. "I’ll get you a cab home."
The valet looked at me dubiously when I asked for a cab, but I used my most executive voice. My "I’ve stayed at more Marriotts then you can count" voice and he called for a cab. I waited with the girl, who seemed on the verge of scurrying off at any second. When the cab arrived, she tumbled in. I gave the driver the address and $20, which he said would cover it. He looked at his passenger with trepidation, probably gauging whether or not she might vomit on his seat. I shoved $10 toward her, which she took without looking at me, continuing to scan the area for whatever she was afraid of. I watched as the cab drove away. I hoped her dad was home to receive her.
I had flown into Anchorage for a conference, but the day had started out rough. I’d received a call right after the plane landed letting me know that Dr. Suthers, my long time mentor, had died. I’d stood frozen in the airport with the phone to my ear, people flowing past on either side of me. I had just seen him a couple weeks before, at a banquet he was emceeing for a number of colleagues and me. I’d marveled, as I did every time I watched him emcee a function, as he told jokes with expert timing, paused for emphasis in all the right spots, and smoothly conducted the event, bringing his audience with him. He’d been full of life, energetic, healthy, and happy. He was retiring next year. Now, just two weeks later, he’d died suddenly from heart failure.
I’d first met Dr. Suthers at the beginning of my career, almost 14 years ago. I was just out of graduate school, with a head full of 18th century literature. I had a closet of flowing skirts, shocking red hair that I fashioned into two buns at my nape, and unshaved legs. I bought my first business suit for my interview. We worked for a company that ran educational institutions for at-risk youth. Dr. Suthers was a Vice-President in the company in charge of designing curriculum. I was hired to use the skills I’d honed writing about Milton’s Paradise Lost to write press releases about students.
I first met Dr. Suthers during my training at the corporate office, where he spoke to us about the value of education. The Wasatch Mountains of Utah were behind us, showcased through a wall of windows in the training room. I ran my hand across the black leather of the thin portfolio we’d all been given. Dr. Suthers stood at the front and rocked back on his feet a little, pulling his suit jacket closed, surveying us with giant eyes magnified by ¼ inch thick lenses. "You have started on a journey of the utmost importance," he rang out. "You cannot waiver in your dedication, in your creativity and in your commitment." He paused. I sat up straighter in my stiff, new suit. He seemed to look right at me. "You are changing lives." At the end of his session, he quoted "Casey at the Bat," one of his favorite poems, and my English-major soul was smitten with him.
I have always been drawn to older men, father figures. Not romantically, but as surrogate fathers. My 7th grade teacher, my choir teacher, the supervisor at the drug store where I worked during college were all stand-in fathers for me, at least in my mind. I don’t know who my biological father is, so the only father I knew was my stepdad. My stepdad would have looked down on my choice to buy a suit. He would have mocked the shiny training room and the corporate executives in it. He would have told me to stop playing someone else’s game and to be authentic to myself.
When I was in second grade, my family visited a neighboring family down long gravel road. Since the house we were building didn’t yet have electricity, we spent a fair amount of time at the neighbors’ house, which always smelled of dogs and pot. Part of their property was a sloped hill that looked out across the forests. After an afternoon of drinking, my stepdad sat on that slope and called me over to him. He pulled me close to him and asked me to kiss his fleshly cheek. As I did so, I smelled stale beer. "Look out there," he slurred. "What do you see?" I looked, but I didn’t really see anything. Just a bunch of trees. "Do you see that tree?" he asked. "The one taller than all the others?" One dark fir tree stood higher, its thick branches reaching out.
"Yes," I said.
"I want you to be like that tree."
I didn’t like his arm around me and I wanted to pull away, but I didn’t want to be rude. "You want me to be like a tree?" I tried to joke.
"No," he said, with a trace of irritation. "I want you to be better than all the others. Stand higher. Stronger. I want you to remember this."
"Okay," I said in a quiet voice, feeling small and weak in his grasp.
Ten years after the training with Dr. Suthers, I’d grown up in the company. I’d been promoted three times and I had a closet full of suits. I shaved my legs and had my nails done. I supervised people. I was now in Executive Training Program run by Dr. Suthers. I wasn’t sure what the next two years in the program would be like, but I needed something. I was frustrated in my job. My new ideas and programs didn’t work. My supervisor had been promoted from my position and had trouble letting go of those areas. She met with my managers without me there. My latent insecurities were at the forefront and I was hurt and angry. I pouted. I felt useless and ineffective.
Dr. Suthers was a true educator and our time was spent reading educational theories, writing critical essays, discussing practical applications, and my favorite, public speaking. The program played to my strengths. During my time in the program, I began to feel, once more, that I belonged in this business. That I had something to offer. That I could make a difference. He was honest, critical of my tendency to talk too fast or to come across as too blunt, but he was empowering. He saw my potential and reminded me that it was there. I was recommitted.
When my mother and my stepdad divorced, my stepdad and I lived together while I finished my senior year of high school. We lived like roommates, meeting each other in the hallway both hunched over with our arms full of clothes as we went to and from the washer and dryer. He boiled foul-smelling herbal concoctions to clear his toxins and I sautéed mushrooms in butter for dinner. He sometimes went to work, but more often called in sick. I always went to school. I didn’t know where I would go to college, but I had no money and the bank was foreclosing on the house, so I had to go. He had just told me he was going on a vision quest on his motorcycle and probably wouldn’t be coming back. My stepdad drank his tea. "You just shouldn’t worry about college," he said. "It’s just material stuff. They’ll just teach you to work in a little box."
"It may be material stuff, but I’d rather not live on the streets."
"Don’t be so dramatic. You always get caught up in other people’s games. You need to do what is it is your soul is meant to."
I sighed and looked away from the stack of unpaid bills on the counter. I’d call my mom if I was still speaking to her. "I think what I’m meant to do is going to college. What else am I going to do? Live in the woods and work at the cannery?" My mother had worked at the cannery during a period when my stepdad was not working. She had grown dark circles under her eyes and was so tired from packing fruit into cans that she barely talked to any of us.
"I wish you could see your aura right now," he said. "It’s so weak and sickly. You should really try some of this tea, so you can have a strong aura. Like mine." He took a self-satisfied sip.
He could take his aura and shove it. He left on his vision quest shortly after, and I lived by myself until I found my own way to college.
The last time I saw Dr. Suthers, when he emceed the banquet, he talked about our young people. The sometimes damaged, but almost always resilient young people who attend our schools. The sad, scared and lost teenagers, like my girl in Anchorage. She could have been my student. She was the kind of person that Dr. Suthers reached for. He knew that our students needed someone to champion them, believe in them, and build their confidence. They needed someone to be there when they’d disappointed themselves. They needed fathers. There have been times when I’ve felt just as fragile as that girl, reached out and dialed, but no one picked up the phone. My stepdad couldn’t be that person. He failed me, as some father fail their children. But I’ve had other fathers. Men who cared about me. Taught me. Helped me grow. Protected me. Answered the phone when I called.
I like to assume that the cab drove the girl to her house and her father was waiting for her. Giving her a glass of water, telling her they’d talk about things in the morning. That he would bring home groceries, pay the mortgage. Help her research colleges and drive her to the campus at the beginning of the term. But if not, if she grew into a woman who looked for other fathers, I hope she was as fortunate as I was in finding one.
Naomi Ulsted works as the director of a training facility for at-risk youth. She is a member of the Pacific Northwest Writers Association, Willamette Writers and the Association of Writers and Writing Professionals. She also participates in AWP's Writer to Writer mentor program.