THE DISH

ELIZABETH BOLTON

 
 

The Stanford University Dish Trail is a loop with multiple entrances. You choose one entrance, likely the one with parking available, enter through the metal gate and walk around its sloped, narrow path until you find yourself back where you started. On a clear day, you can see San Francisco, Oakland, San Jose, and the East Bay from its gentle, paved walkway. The path encircles vast open fields of crispy grass flattened to the ground in graceful, wave-like patterns, like coarse but well-combed hair.
 
Years ago, the trail, which is part of Stanford University’s private property, used to allow its visitors to meander off path and, if they liked, settle themselves in somewhere along the itchy turf rooted in hard-packed, dry earth which the path circumvents. Never mind then that the grass was likely infested with ticks. No one talked about the ticks in those days, or the rattlesnakes, and so you never heard of anyone being bitten. It meant more, anyway, more than the fear of being bitten by something, that you were welcome to wander off the trail and stop for a time and do whatever you wished beneath the shade of the nearest wide, heavy-elbowed elm or oak.
 
It must have been summer when Dad took us there to finish Anne of Green Gables. I’m sure it must have been summer because we were all together in the daytime, Dad and my two brothers and I, and that only really happened in the summer times. Dad worked nearby on the linear accelerator, and in the summer he could come home at lunch and take us out for walks or bike rides around Menlo Park and Stanford campus. The book was for me. My brothers hadn’t listened to most of it and weren’t listening that day, either. Instead they clamored over the low, saggy branches of a crusty oak while my dad found the two of us a seat of pressed grass with a fallen trunk for a backrest. He’d tucked our frayed copy of Anne of Green Gables into the front zippered pocket on my bicycle handlebars, which now lay twisted against the ground. Bicycles are no longer allowed on the trail. Neither are dogs.
 
Below us was a clear view of Menlo Park and the university campus, most of which was a smooth, residential green dotted with shrub-like blobs of trees. In the distance, the red, dome-topped Hoover Tower rose up like something of religious—or at least musical—importance, though a decade later I was to be taught to mock that very tower, when I would arrive for freshman orientation my first year at Berkeley and learn that unlike Berkley’s Campanile, Stanford’s Hoover Tower contained no actual bells and thus played no music when its clock struck the hour.
 
Dad had finished novels with us before. Gary Paulsen’s Hatchet. Tolkien’s The Hobbit. Matilda. Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, and after that we went immediately to Kepler’s, the local bookstore, in search of its sequel, Charlie and the Great Glass Elevator. We could always tell which books were meant for my brothers, and which were meant for me. Dad chose books with either the boys, or the girl, in mind, though he never explicitly said it. But we knew, and if the book hadn’t been chosen for us, we didn’t listen as closely. Roald Dahl was for me. Tolkien and Paulsen had not been. I was under the impression after we finished Charlie and the Chocolate Factory that novels were supposed to end this way, with some obvious next, new place to go. I was used to the last pages of books giving away some colorful secret, the whole point of reading them, revealed in a bundle of conclusive sentences.
 
Dad pressed open Anne of Green Gables, leaned back against the dead trunk and began to clear his throat like the revving of an old, fussy engine, which he always did before he read and in between chapters. I liked how the paperback binding crackled, and I liked how he would run a dry, thick hand over the length of the page and hold the book out long in line with the end of his nose, as though looking down on it and making some judgment about the shape of the paragraphs on the page before he was to begin.
 
He would punctuate the clearing of his throat with shallow sniffs through the nose, creating a rapid pattern of thinking noises I would come to find irritating as a teenager, particularly when they marked the start of him checking my calculus homework. But when I was eight, the sounds meant the start of a chapter, and then, I adored them.
 
Dad’s reading voice fit in well with the other sounds, the crackle of dry pages where they were bound together, the rustle of tiny life beneath matted, parched grass, the scrape of never-once-moisturized adult male fingers against the length of an aged novel page. Dad’s reading voice came from another time and it wasn’t his usual speaking voice. It was tireless. It could go on and on without ever sounding weary, without ever cracking or needing water to wet it. It was beautiful like musty, moth-chewed velvet discovered in an old trunk of costume clothing in the garage.
 
Dad plucked our gold-foil bookmark from the crease, a folded chocolate wrapper he’d smoothed obsessively with the hard, flat top of a fingernail to make into a “Golden Ticket” while we’d read Charlie and the Chocolate Factory.
 
When I would read Charlie to my classroom of second graders, twenty years later, I would hold up the same bookmark and tell them the story of how my dad had smoothed it into what it then was and they would blink at me in silence from their cross-legged positions on the carpet as though no one had ever read to them before.
 
Carrying an entire paperback up the Dish trail with only one chapter left to read seemed to me a waste of space, like carting a water bottle in a backpack with an inch of warm water sloshing in its base. But Dad ran his hand over the page and held the book out long and sniffed and scoffed at it and tucked the golden bookmark in among earlier pages the same way the rector of our church held the Book of Common Prayer out before him, after he’d trekked halfway down the thick-carpeted aisle with it raised above his head, flanked by two candles on tall wooden poles and led by a heavy, ornate wooden cross. That prayer book, and all the other books from the service, were only ever used a page or two at a time, and the numbers of those pages were so important as to have been carefully posted on black plastic number cards tucked into wooden slots on the wall behind the pulpit. My dad and I used to race each other in church to see who could reach the page first when the program called for it. Sometimes he would fumble through the tissue pages comically and pretend to almost drop the book, and my mother would slap him on the shoulder for it. Dad did that for years, even after, as a teenager, I started faking my laughter in response.
 
“Anne’s horizons had closed in since the night she had sat there after coming home from Queen’s,” Dad began, “…but if the path set before her feet was to be narrow she knew that flowers of quiet happiness would bloom along it. The joys of sincere work and worthy aspiration and congenial friendship were to be hers; nothing could rob her of her birthright of fancy or her ideal world of dreams. And there was always the bend in the road! ‘God’s in his heaven, all’s right with the world,’ whispered Anne softly.”
 
There Dad stopped. I waited. Dad closed the soft volume and sighed.
 
“That was the end?” I asked.
 
“Well, I guess now we can start Anne of Avonlea,” Dad said, gave his grey head a brisk shake and raised a finger in the air, a clownish thing he did to make me laugh when he had an idea.
 
I had pulled all the books from my L.M. Montgomery boxed set out of their cardboard case before to look at each of the cover paintings, which had clearly been done by the same artist. Where the Green Gables cover had been a bird-nosed, skinny child in a straw hat heavy with roses and buttercups, Anne of Avonlea wore her hair in a voluptuous, impossibly high and balanced bun and dressed in a collared blouse and high-waisted navy skirt, with a simple blue ribbon tucked underneath her white collar flaps. She stood in a field of white clover onto which a harsh sunlight shone, and the brightened clover lit her face from underneath and made it rosy, like in a proper photo shoot. The Anne of the Anne of Avonlea cover was a fully grown and beautiful woman, and I was embarrassed to look at her but for in private, where I would study her placed alongside her Green Gables counterpart, a dingy girl clutching a broken carpetbag to her chest, seated on the old and probably splintered wooden bench of a train station.
 
Dad and I would start Anne of Avonlea together but never finish it. I would not open the volumes again until I was thirty-three and pregnant. Somehow, pregnancy eliminated the prior shame I had felt in picking up a childhood novel again and prioritizing the reading of it before all else. I wondered if the baby could feel the buzz and the rhythms of my voice yet, if I could truly say this was the first book I had read to her. I could not recall with specificity my dad reading any of these lines himself, but I remembered how he talked about them afterwards.
 
“Mrs. Rachel Lynde,” I began aloud to myself at Chapter 1 and paused – was it Lynde with a hard d, or Lindy? I couldn’t recall how Dad had read it, “lived just where the Avonlea main road dipped down into a little hollow, fringed with alders and ladies’ eardrops and traversed by a brook that had its source away back in the woods of the old Cuthbert place…”
 
“Do you know anyone like Rachel Lynde?” he had asked me, “…someone who just sits at her window and watches people who pass by, just to gossip about them?” I had shaken my tiny head. I knew no one like that.
 
She seems like a real Rachel Lynde,” my dad once whispered to me in church when Bettina Pitt with her curiously high, rounded forehead and mist of dyed hair rising above it like a golden steam would stand with two hands clasped before the shining gold buttons of her blazer and make her monthly announcement about the Sunday Supper. Dad said Bettina’s British accent was mostly fake, and that she didn’t have much in the world to do besides organize the Sunday Suppers.
 
I would feel like a Rachel Lynde years later as a seventeen-year-old when, after my first boyfriend Phillip broke up with me, I would sit at our kitchen window and wait for his shark-blue BMW to blare past our house on Santa Cruz Avenue, his round white moon face chomping bubble tape and accessorized with cheap green plastic sunglasses. I’d sit alone at the table before anyone else had gotten home with a glass of juice and a pile of goldfish crackers on a napkin and wait in confused terror for his car with the black ski rack on top to speed past my window in all of two seconds, for I knew he drove home that way, and once I’d seen him I’d feel the walls of my insides grind against each other with some strange combination of grief and arousal I couldn’t determine if I liked or not, then clear my napkin and glass and retreat to my bedroom to wrap myself in my comforter and hide from no one in particular that I was sucking my thumb. I would then walk around the house wrapped in the comforter like a fat, upright inchworm until our mother came home from her shift at the airport and started dinner. Thumb sucking would be a habit I would slip back into even as a young adult each time something terrible overwhelmed me. My dad was the angriest about it and would wrench the blanket away from my face if he saw me cowering behind it. My brothers made fun of me for it. Dad always came home just before dinner and the colors of the house would darken then. The sound of the garage door grinding open meant that all televisions should be off and homework should not only be completed but demonstrably so. Showing Dad what had been assigned and how you’d gone about it was an event I sometimes saw myself as the host of. When I was very young I would serve my dad juice in teacups when he came to my room to see my spelling pre-test. As a teenager, homework checking ended so frequently with me in tears that juice in teacups didn’t seem appropriate. Evenings in our Menlo Park house were a long wait until the hour when I could get into bed, when all things were possible in imagination and uninterrupted, where emotions could be felt and pressed out in hot silence, where thumbs could be sucked to no end, where Phillip and I had never broken up but had instead gotten married, moved into a cave somewhere in Greece and become a couple of shepherds, dressed like the Mary and Joseph in our church’s nativity pageant. I thought I understood Rachel Lynde, then.
 
The Stanford Dish Trail is now fully paved where sections of it used to be dirt. Signs caution its patrons against going off trail, not only because of ticks carrying Lyme disease but also because of the rattlesnakes, cows, and the enormous and potentially violent wild turkeys. Each remarkably ugly bird looks like it weighs close to forty pounds. A lone security guard in a shaded white wooden booth by the front gate urges walkers and joggers to avoid restricted areas and to exit the trail by dusk, when the loop officially closes. You do not see, anymore, fathers seated beneath the shade of oaks reading to their daughters. Stopping isn’t allowed. The trail is to be walked or jogged, finished and left.
 
I last walked the trail seven months ago, when Phillip and I came home to California at Christmas, the same Phillip I watched for from our kitchen window. We were married last August after reconnecting on Facebook. We did not move to a cave in Greece, though we went to Greece on honeymoon for one month, where I learned I was pregnant and grew so nauseated at the sight of Greek food that I could not afterwards look at photos of the trip without feeling the same sickness. Phillip still talks of us getting our own sheep one day.
 
We had taken my brother-in-law, Nico ,for a walk along the trail and Phillip was irritated that his recovering meth-addict brother needed so much attention, needed to be taken on walks, like a golden retriever. Up ahead, a Menlo Park mom in black knee-length spandex, her hair tucked beneath a baseball cap, worked her bony arms up and down vigorously in concert with her wiggling hips and tanned calves. Beside her a friend in neon running shorts and a racerback top pushed a stroller with off-road tires. The three of us were silent. I seemed to be the only one who was listening intently in on the conversation ahead.
 
“Well,” she in the baseball cap was saying between breaths, “I grabbed up Nicky, handed him to Diane, put the empty stroller in front of me and just started running at the thing! I mean, it looked angry, and it was stamping, like, it was ready to charge!”
 
The Dish cows in shades of ruddy brown and black were close enough to walk out into the field and touch, and all of them looked lazy and peaceful with their circling, popping jaws and slow, unamused blinks. It was evident, though, as she motioned with a hand that flapped repeatedly out to one side, that this woman was referring to another instance involving the very same cows.
 
“Diane and the kids made a beeline for the grates and I ran through after them with the stroller!” Her friend shook her head in disbelief. She meant the metal-grated footbridge at the entrance gate, designed so the Dish cows with their narrow hooves could not cross to the other side.
 
Phillip, Nico and I stopped where we were. Nico had a psychiatric appointment at twelve-thirty and if he was to be there on time, we wouldn’t be able to complete the loop but would have to stop and double back to where we’d started. It was hot in spite of being winter and I felt weak and grateful that we wouldn’t finish. Another woman with a high, blond ponytail in a jogging bra, bounding in the opposite direction, caught Nico’s eye.
 
“My future wife,” he cupped a hand over his mouth as he said it and wiggled his brow at me. I forced a smile. Phillip looked off towards the cow field and rolled his eyes. The shake of his head was slight but perceptible.
 
The Dish trail was named for its one-hundred-fifty-foot diameter radio telescope built in 1961 by the Stanford Research Institute. As a kid I thought the trail was called the Dish because the whole place was shaped a bit like a wobbly-edged fruit bowl. I never noticed the massive telescope.
 
“What do they use that dish for, anyway? Talking to aliens?” I joked as we passed it for the second time. No one answered. Dad would know.

 
 

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