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Big Problems

by Dianna Winget

"Hey, Dad, check this out," I said, turning my back to the street and pretending interest in the display window of Franklin's Games and Movies. I tried to flatten myself up against the cool glass, desperately hoping that the two Jenson girls across the street would pass by without noticing me.

If they recognized me and saw my dad, all 350 pounds of him, I'd be the laughing stock of my 4-H club all summer.

"Check what out, Erica?" Dad ask, sounding a little puzzled.

"Oh, nothing actually," I said, forcing a giggle. "I thought I saw that movie we've been watching for, but I guess it was another title."

I cast a cautious glance over my shoulder as Jody and Cara walked by without turning. And then I felt the familiar mix of relief and shame that I always felt after preventing someone from seeing my dad.

It wasn't that I didn't love him. I did. He was a great dad. He was fun to be around, generous and caring. But spending time with him in public made me a nervous wreck. Now that school was out, my biggest fear was running into one of the kids from my 4-H Club.

We'd lived in Bakersfield for only five months, and so far I'd done a pretty good job of keeping people from seeing us together. Open house at school had been a big challenge. That was the night I'd come down with a sudden headache and sore throat. The parent-student luncheon had gone well because dad had to work, so just Mom and I went.

But my biggest obstacle yet was only two weeks away, and I had no idea how I was going to handle it. My 4-H club was having a father-daughter camp out. And not only did my dad know about it, he couldn't wait to go! So every single day I obsessed about how to keep him from going without hurting his feelings.

Before I knew it, the date had rolled around to June 20, only a week before the campout, and I still had no solution. Dad was out in the front yard checking our tent for holes and I was handing him tent pegs, smiling on the outside and dying on the inside.

"I sure hope you don't feel obligated to go camping with me," I said. "It's no problem if you'd rather do something else."

Dad hammered in the final peg and then slowly stood, breathing heavily from exertion. "Are you kidding? I've been looking forward to this all month. We're gonna have a great time."

"Unless it decides to rain," I said, making an effort to keep the eagerness out of my voice. "That'd be a real bummer."

Dad gave me a cheerful smile. "Rain? It wouldn't dare."

"No," I mumbled. "With my luck it probably wouldn't."

The next evening I sat in a stupor as Cara and Jody's dad, who also happened to be our 4-H leader, discussed final plans for the campout. Mr. Jenson was really nice-looking, slender and fit. I figured everyone else's dad would look the same. So as soon as my dad showed up, everyone would start whispering and snickering and making jokes. I could visualize the whole scene now, and it made me want to crawl into a hole.

When Mr. Jenson ask whose fathers would be coming, everyone except for me and a girl named Hope raised their hands.

"I'm not sure yet," I told Mr. Jenson. "My dad might be out of town that weekend."

As soon as the meeting ended, I quickly scooted over beside Hope. She was 12, the same as me, but shy and quiet, and I'd only spoken to her a couple of times. "So why isn't your dad coming?" I ask bluntly.

Hope fingered a lock of her dark hair and looked away with a shrug. "He's busy."

"With work?"

"Yeah." She lowered her eyes and I knew instantly that she was lying.

"You don't want him to come, do you?"

"That's not true."

"Well, maybe not. But it's ok if it is. I mean, I understand. I'm having the same kind of problem."

Her eyebrows peaked. "You don't want your dad to come?"

I looked over my shoulder to make sure no one was listening and lowered my voice to a whisper. "No. Mr. Jenson is the only one from the club that knows him, and I'm afraid everyone would laugh at him because he's overweight."

"How overweight?"

"Very."

Hope nodded like she understood, and I felt an instant bonding with her. "Well," she said, "he might be fat, but I bet nobody asks if you're his granddaughter."

"What do you mean?" I asked.

Tears filled her eyes. "My dad's really old. He's 58. So everybody thinks I'm his granddaughter. You can't believe how embarrassing it is! Why couldn't he be 35 or 40 like everyone else's dad?"

"Oh," I said, uncertain how to respond. "So does he know about the campout?"

"Yeah. But I told him I didn't feel like going. He said it was up to me, but that he'd go if I changed my mind."

"You're lucky," I told her. "My dad's all excited about going."

"What are you going to do?"

I shrugged.

That night in bed, Hope's question played over and over in my mind like an annoying commercial. What was I going to do? As near as I could tell, I had three options. Try to convince Dad the trip had been canceled for some reason and then try to live with a guilty conscience for the rest of my life. Or, I could force myself to be honest, and probably hurt his feelings terribly. Or, I could just bite my tongue and let him come and be the laughingstock of the kids.

I realized that the second option was probably the one I should go with. After all, honesty was supposed to be the best policy, wasn't it? So the next evening I tried to be honest. I really did. My parents and I were on our way home after eating dinner out, and I sat in the back seat of the car trying to word what I needed to say as gently as possible. " Hey, Dad...," I began, hating myself for what I was about to say.

"Yeah, I see them," Dad said, braking and pulling over to a stop on the side of the road.

I blinked, thoroughly confused. "See who?"

"Bob Jenson. Behind us. He's having car trouble."

I craned my neck to look behind me as Dad slowly worked himself out from behind the steering wheel. My heart instantly froze in my chest.

Mr. Jenson was about 30 feet behind us, peering under the open hood of his pickup, while Cara and Jody leaned up against the cab looking bored.

I thought about shrinking down into my seat, but I knew they'd already seen me. So I got out of the car and sauntered toward them, trying to act as normal as possible.

Cara and Jody checked out my dad, sizing him up, and any second I expected the giggles and whispers. But none came. In fact, they looked as embarrassed as I felt.

"Hey," Jody said. " I can't believe my dad let us get stuck out here like this."

Cara rolled her eyes and nodded. "We've already been here a half hour. Can you believe it? Dad doesn't know a single thing about fixing cars!"

I tried to hide my surprise. I couldn't believe they could find fault with such a perfect looking dad as Mr. Jenson. Then a sudden rush of pride surged through me. "Oh, yeah?" I said. "My dad knows all about fixing stuff."

"Is he coming on the campout next weekend? Cara asked. "Maybe he can show Dad how to set up the tent."

All three of us laughed and I felt a tremendous weight lift from my shoulders. It suddenly dawned on me that maybe I was a lot more worried about my dad's weight than anyone else was. In fact, I'd been so afraid of how people would react to him that I'd blown the whole thing out of proportion. So what if he was heavier than the other dads? Hope's dad was old, and Mr. Jenson didn't know how to fix things. Did any of it matter so much?

I knew the answer was no. I hoped that maybe Hope would see it that way too, just as soon as I got back in the car and had a chance to call her.

© Dianna Dorisi Winget