Catherine Harnett

He leaves early every morning with a thermos full of coffee, a bagged lunch, his overcoat, and on rainy days, galoshes. Since I don't know what he does, I make up stories: he takes the train each day to the city to buy and sell stocks; he teaches science in a Nassau County school; he is an artist with a studio overlooking the beach.

He comes home with his empty thermos, his folded paper bag, and wears the same expression each night. My father's been described as having a mild disposition; I'm not sure who first said it, but I agree. As in mild tobacco, or mild weather, not too sharp, not too cold.

My father loves his garden, full of zinnias in summer and round pumpkins in the early fall. I see him kneeling down, his back to me, using his spade to loosen the dirt. He pulls weeds, plants seeds, talks to his flowers, urging them to grow beautiful when their season is right. My mother scolds him when he comes inside for doing "ladies' work." She believes he should be wiring a new doorbell, changing the lighting in the dining room. She is annoyed at having to hire someone, pay electricians to do what other husbands do.

It is by accident I learn that my father works there. I overheard two neighbors whispering as my mother and I walked through the frozen food aisle at the A&P.

You know where Bob works don't you? At that hospital. How does she stand him working with crazies every day? You think it's contagious? The ladies giggle.

On the way home, I ask about it; my mother says I must never tell anyone—not a friend, not a teacher, not even my cousins—that he works there. We have driven past it a hundred times, the ugly brick building with gates, and signs that only say "State Hospital." Nothing about the insane, the demented, the lunatics inside.

He is surprised that I know.

I tell him I heard ladies at the A&P talking about him, that he worked with mental patients.

He is quiet. He leans the rake against the house.

Don't worry. That is all he says.

I am quiet, too. I pick up two leaves; one is bright red, the other brown and papery.

We walk toward the stoop and sit down. My mother is at a Tupperware party with some of those same ladies from the A&P. I wonder if they will bring it up, if my mother will lie.

I ask him if he likes his job.

For the most part, yes.

He goes on to tell me the hospital is for people who are suffering. Mental problems, split personalities, depression, violent natures. And children, Mongoloids mostly, sitting, rocking all day.

I say that I am good at keeping secrets, that he should tell me more.

All right, then.

Now I know that my father spends his days in a place with bars and people who scream for no apparent reason. With men who force girls to have sex with them. With people who take pills or cut their wrists.

I imagine him in that place, eating his sandwich, folding up his paper bag every day. Who does he sit with? Doctors in white coats, nurses in stiff uniforms?

My father is the person who puts electric currents in peoples' brains. I read about them, how patients are strapped down, how their bodies jump when shocked. It doesn't always work the first time, so there are second and third times, maybe more. Some people lose their personality, are never the same.

Since I've learned where he works, I do not let him in my room to say goodnight. I am convinced he smells like craziness. And like smoke, like burnt hair.

That is what my father does. He is good at it, he says, quite good.

Catherine Harnett is a poet and fiction writer from Virginia. Her work has appeared in a number of publications and anthologies, and Washington Writers Publishing House published two books of her poetry. In 2007, she retired from the federal government where she oversaw domestic and international public outreach programs. She holds an MA from Georgetown University.