by Emily Hedges
My parents’ annual visit from Oklahoma falls during Shark Week this year. The July Discovery Channel tradition captivates my Dad. He sent a text a month ago reminding me to set a DVR recording. Since arriving, they spend time with my three kids—nine, eight and seven—gathered around the television in the downstairs living room watching glass-eyed, roving predators take chucks out of human thighs and sides. I allow it against my better judgement. I have already said no to Dad’s dosing my kids with home-brewed colloidal silver and the show River Monsters. I feel I can’t say no to everything, so I say yes to this with my silence.
“It’s not just a great white. It’s a rogue monster with a taste for people,” Dad tells us over coffee. In a show he watched the night before, three boaters encountered a megalodon—a super shark—which dragged their craft underwater.
“Naturally the two women were panicking, but the man stayed calm. This guy in the boat next to theirs volunteers to go down and try to bring them up,” Dad says. “He was just some guy willing to go down there knowing what was waiting. Now that’s courage.”
“You know Dad, there’s nothing ‘natural’ about women panicking,” I say. He just cuts a glance at Mom, frustrated that once again I’ve missed the point. I’m curious about the word “megalodon” so I Google the name. I learn it’s an extinct, ancient shark scientists believe once measured 40 to 70 feet in length, compared to the average great white that is from 15 to 20 feet.
Later that day I’m sitting in the living room reading. Mom and Dad come in with my nine-year-old, Scout, and sit down. The television screensaver is scrolling stock landscape photos with news headlines. I see the name Hillary Clinton out of the corner of my eye. Dad sees it too because he says, “Okay Emily. The election is tomorrow. Who do you vote for, Hillary or Trump?”
“Hillary!” Scout responds with a fist pump in the air. I love her innocent, uncalculating honesty. If only it was so easy to be an adult child. I feel my parents’ eyes on me and hope perhaps this is a rhetorical question, meant as a comment on the impossible state of American politics, like when I proclaimed myself a conscientious objector in the 2004 Bush/Kerry election. But their silent, challenging expressions make it clear they’re waiting for a response.
“Hillary,” I say, knowing how my parents feel about her. Just the day before, my Dad detailed what he refers to as the “Clinton body count”—White Water, Ruby Ridge, Waco, and “all the others” strewn along their path to the top. But surely they couldn’t support Trump either. I remember how Bill’s presidency inspired an almost daily discussion of the necessity of character in an American president? Would they consider Trump as having character?
“Why?” Mom asks me in an accusing tone. Then she catches herself, forcing her body to relax against the arm of the couch. The corners of her mouth soften into a half smile. She’s trying to look calm, but it only gives her face a smirk.
“What do you know about him? Has he broken the law?” she challenges. Unformed sentences catch in my throat. I don’t know whether I should let them out or keep them trapped. Paralyzed, I feel myself bobbing in open water about to be bitten. Then a memory surfaces from their last visit. While drinking coffee on the deck, Mom made a statement about global warming that I challenged. Her face flushed; her lips trembled; and her eyes turned shiny. She apologized each time she reached up to wipe away a tear with the back of her hand, weathered and brown from daily work in her garden.
“I’m sorry. I don’t know why I’m crying,” she kept saying over and over.
I look down at her hand and remember how when I was little, I used to wrap it up in a wash cloth and pretend it was my baby. Now those gentle fingers are curled inward, clinched together with anger.
“It wouldn’t surprise me if he’s broken the law given his business, but of course I don’t know that and I’m not going to bear false witness against him,” I say, hoping this might discourage them from doing the same about Hillary in front of Scout. Unlike yesterday when I was able to smile and walk away, in front of my children I don’t have that option.
“Really Emily. What do you think you know about him?” Mom presses.
I see gold-plated Trump Tower near Columbus Circle in New York; his Atlantic City casino, in bankruptcy when I was there in 1999 on business. I see the arrogant sneer, the hair.
“I don’t really think you want my opinion, so I’d rather not say.” I am careful not to appear upset. Then I go upstairs for a soda. As I disappear around the corner, I hear her say, “For someone who doesn’t pay attention to the news, you seem to think you know a lot.” Her tone was low, meant only for Dad. My parents think I don’t follow the news because I don’t watch Fox, and I never bring up current events. My pride makes me want to correct her, but instead I say loud enough for her to hear: “I pay attention to more than you think Mom.”
It occurs to me—why Trump over all the other Republican candidates who seem a more logical fit for my parents’ conservative Christian worldview? I’ve never heard them mention him before. Why now? I hear the TV roar back to life downstairs, and the answer comes to me: for the same reason Trump is trending—for his recent comments describing Mexican immigrants as criminals, rapists, roving predators. I turn, ready to go downstairs and tell them there is no research that supports the claim that illegal immigrants are more likely to commit crimes (except relating to immigration of course) than the rest of the population. In fact, statistically they are less likely, which makes sense given their fear of deportation. But then I stop. What good would it do? I look over at my two younger children sitting at the kitchen table coloring, both adopted from Mexican American birth parents, and puzzle over my parents’ logic.
After a time I return to the living room and all appears to be forgotten. In this episode a man in a cage is lowered into shark-infested water. The scientists hope to tag one of the great whites so they can better understand their movements and protect the nearby beach full of unsuspecting innocents swimming only a few hundred feet from a seal breeding ground. Then the scientist hazards an opinion as to why shark attacks have increased so dramatically over the last decade in this one beach off the coast of South America. His theory is that increased dumping of toxic waste into waterways is constricting the great white’s domain.
“The victim is always at fault,” my Dad says sarcastically. The suggestion that man could play a role in shark attacks offends him. He explains to Scout that it’s in the nature of a shark to look for new territory and to kill. To try to attribute that nature to something man causes or deserves is to deny observable fact. His words feel like the dark ocean, and I notice his arms forming a protective cage around her. She snuggles into them the way I did when I was little and I’m jealous. From where I sit on the opposite couch, it’s obvious there’s only enough room in them for a child. I watch his eyes watch the flickering images. His face seems content, the threatening, disintegrating world contained within the borders of the 48-inch television screen.