I’ve got a story up in Hobart today! Creepy hamburger face man will be pleased if you give it a read.
I’ve got a story up in Hobart today! Creepy hamburger face man will be pleased if you give it a read.
When it was Dad’s weekend I’d find him at the end of the block with that week’s bike, usually pegged so I could hang on the back, or if I was lucky he’d be one-handing an old BMX next to him, my ride for the next three days till we had to dump it so the cops wouldn’t catch on. If Mom asked, he called us a cab. Mom never asked. Mom told me to have a good time over the forced dialogue of her soaps.
Most weekends we’d hit up the payphones en route to the mall, scooping out abandoned coins from slots and putting them in my Mickey Mouse wallet which was in fact a backpack for an impossibly tiny person. We’d need most of our change for food, so we rationed out one prank call each. Mine revolved around running refrigerators at first, but Dad set me straight. He once convinced an elderly lady he was her long lost son back from the war. Evacuated a department store based on “reports” of a bomb threat. Dad was a real pro.
When we made it to the mall, first thing we’d do was swap our inner tube caps with the coolest ones we could find in the parking lot; let a little air out first if we got them from a Jag or Beemer. It was important that we ride in style, even if the bikes weren’t permanent.
There’s a way of hyper-extending your arm to the point of possible breakage to reach in the hole where the claw game’s prizes go and pry numb fingers around whatever you find there. I was lookout till Dad showed me how, then we swapped roles. If the stretch hurt my elbow, Dad would snatch a to-go bag from the food court’s Taco Bell, load it up with ice and tie it around my arm like some demented pool floatie. The TB had an old Polaroid of Dad tacked to the wall, but we always seemed to make it out okay.
For Pokémon card machines he’d pull out his special quarters. Special quarters were regular quarters with five-pound test tied to them, the fishing line thin and strong enough to regurgitate the coin once I got my Blastoise, or Mewtwo, or (let’s be honest) Rattata. Every damn time, Dad would ask if I got the right Pokey-mon. Like that, too. Pokey. I’d nod and smile even if it was like a water energy, because if I didn’t, he’d pull the same con twice. Even at seven I knew you didn’t pull the same con twice.
We’d stop for lunch at this Chinese restaurant, one of the few places still willing to accept loose change as payment. I stacked my water chestnuts as I ate, same as the coins stacked after our meal: towers of quarters, nickels, dimes, and the way they’d count them in silence.
After that we’d stop at Blockbuster to undertake Dad’s life’s work. Every week he’d take a video and pile it in the hotel bathtub with the rest, bathroom tile as cutting room floor as he unspooled film from one tape, cut and spliced it with film from another, checked the edit with liberated reading glasses, assembled the master tape one frame at a time. Dad said it’d be the greatest film ever made once it was finished. He’d been working on it ever since he and Mom got divorced, three years of tapes, garbage-bagging them whenever a hotel kicked him out so he could continue his life’s work somewhere else.
Every weekend would end with him pouring tiny liquor bottles he swiped that week into an old Jim Beam, an alcoholic mad scientist fumbling with his beakers, and me peeking through door’s crack, strictly off limits, trying to catch a glimpse of a cell whenever Dad held his work up to the light. And the way the tiny bottles would scatter on the tile, plastic and so shatterproof, and at most he’d get another two seconds of his masterpiece done. And how we’d dump our bike(s) in a new spot each time, Dad insisting they’d end up in the right hands, whatever that meant, and us walking alongside the railroad tracks, Dad leaving a trail of tiny bottles behind us in case we got lost on the way, though we never once did.
The best way to remember that trip is in Dad’s smile as the raindrops watered his phoenix hair. I say phoenix because after he quit chemo his hair was about the only thing rising from the ashes.
Or maybe it’s the glow of the Sterno under Dad’s chin; the way the light caught his eyesockets like all those childhood flashlight stories about child murderers who targeted kids who kept their dad up all night by farting in the tent and then laughing when he told them to cut it out.
The tent went up in pieces and then not at all. Dad took two breaks while I pored over the instructions (“just need a breather”), and each time his hand froze mid-grab for a pack of smokes he wasn’t allowed to have: an emaciated cowboy getting ready to draw.
Or maybe it’s the way the turkey burgers oozed through the griddle to sizzle on the flame, beef like so many other things off limits. And how Dad forked out charred chunks of it and piled it onto a bun. Drew and I tried for solidarity but only got like two bites in before relinquishing it to a pack of hungry squirrels.
We had this thing where Drew, Mom, and I would gather firewood while Dad chopped. After Mom died, Drew and I would grab double our usual haul, gnarled sticks and kindling spilling from our arms and leaving a wooden trail. Dad showed us the angle necessary to cleave the wood at max efficiency, citing old boy scout lessons. He could only get halfway through the first log before he had to stop this time. Drew waved me off when I tried to take the hatchet.
Or when we finished our s’mores, my marshmallows of the barely-touched golden variety and Drew’s and Dad’s blackened beyond recognition. When Dad went to shut off the Sterno, how it fell from his shaking hands and tumbled, down a hill and into a ravine, still lit, pilot light streaking flame onto errant branches, the only word Dad knew then being “fuck.” How I remembered that only you can prevent forest fires.
Or maybe it’s how I slipped my concern in while the three of us peed on trees: Dad a captive audience, me insisting the clinical trials looked promising. That it wasn’t like it was when Mom passed. And the way he looked at me after he zipped up, like we’d just met and I’d insulted his mother. Eyes trailing over the burned-out hole where the Sterno was, after the rain drowned out the fire. The way he said he couldn’t waste away like her, his voice calm and quiet as if he were coaxing me to sleep.
Or Drew and I playing War with our old childhood deck. One of the Jokers in there with “oker” sharpied out to stand in for a Jack long since lost. Eating scrambled eggs with our hands out of plastic cups notched for alcohol: mine a shot and his a full cup. Me amassing a pile of Drew’s cards and Drew watching the way the cardinals dip in and out of view, under pine boughs and into the light of the morning. How Drew said he gives up. How I said he couldn’t, that we’d see the game through to the end.
Or even the damn fishing. Dad going bobberless because he wants to “feel it,” me using one and reminding Drew of the time we discovered that Poké Balls were just a ripoff of these things. How we used to turn every caught fish into a Goldeen, or a Gyarados if we were lucky. How Dad would sit for hours, his only sustenance watching the pull of his line across the water. And the way I kept asking Dad if we were through, with “just a minute” as his go-to for the next hour. Me swiping through my feed so I didn’t have to see him hunched over on a rock, chest caving in on itself. How Drew kept casting out with him.
Or his smile when he brought the sturgeon to shore, like his composite parts had been scattered and only this fish could return them, could put them back together again.
Or the way he goaded me to get in the frame for a pic outside the bait shop. How we all needed to get a hand under it. To feel the weight of this thing together. How it’d make a great shot.
And me flanking Dad, with Drew on the other side, wondering all the time if I should laugh, or cry, or just say cheese.
Nora likes to watch the way the ants crawl in and out of Henry’s bootprints in the mud out back, climbing out of each one like they’re the grandest of canyons. Henry isn’t Nora’s real daddy, but they pretend the way the ants pretend that the bootholes are something more than what they are.
Nora sits on the back porch most nights, behind the screen, and all around her are the jars of stars that Henry brings home on the good nights, green flickers under fluttering wings and the way the red spots on the lightning bugs’ heads look like spooky eyeballs forever staring. The stars in the jars fly for the ones up above even though they can never reach them.
The bad nights are when Henry calls through the trees for Nora’s mama even though he knows Nora’s mama is gone. Bad nights is the new mud trail helixing back and forth past the first one, mud sucking up boots and Henry coming in barefoot with the mud leaving footprints that could be severed wings for the way they look, clipped and strewn across the kitchen floor. A big pile of wings by the fridge and another by the back door, where Henry puts all his empties. Bad nights is Henry on the sofa, crying for Nora till she can’t pretend she doesn’t hear no more and has to go and sit on his lap and hear the sad songs and smell the sour smell that makes her eyes water every time.
Good thing about bad nights is there’s always a good morning the next day. Mountains of oatmeal peaking from a milky lagoon and the way the stubbly lump on Henry’s throat will move back and forth when he drinks from his bowl like it’s nothing but a big cup. Mornings where sunny dew shines off the grass out back and dances in their eyes, when they will march into the hills, into the trees, and take the fruit they find there. When Nora finds the tiny apples, the two of them become giants stomping through a miniature world. These mornings are honey let to drip from the tip of a spoon, hours that drizzle over bread and glint against the raisins baked into it. Afternoons spent watching Henry split logs out back, and the way the wood on the inside is brighter than the bark, where the rain and the snow and the wind tirelessly do their work.
Some nights Henry doesn’t come back with jars of stars or helix a new path. Some nights Henry comes back with the stink of blood and sweat on him and an eye so puffy it looks like he’s growing another head. His voice and breath come out like broken glass down a garbage disposal these nights. These nights he has to go to work inside his cage. When he says cage, Nora sees him at the zoo, gnawing at the tiniest of apples and beating his chest for a crowd. She doesn’t see the referee with his dead eyes and hobbled leg, the other man in the cage with his prickly head and sour smell. These nights Nora climbs up onto her kitchen chair and brings a slab from the freezer, holds it to Henry’s eye as he tells her stories about the way her mama used to be before she went away, before even she had Nora, and these are the strangest stories to hear because Nora can’t see her mother as a young lady, waitressing to put herself through art school, scrounging up any bit of free time she can find to paint and draw and sculpt. She can only see her in the quiet light of morning, sun shining off her smooth head, round and full as a fresh hatched egg. Smooth because of the sickness. Smooth because Mama’s friend Key Moe had come to visit and when Key Moe came he took everything, even the hairs on your head.
One night Nora hears Henry making weird noises in the bedroom and when she goes and peeks in the door’s crack where the fading light shows dust floating like tiny negative stars, there’s a picture of Mama in Henry’s busted hand, and even though his knuckles are split and skin calloused he holds the photo like it might fall apart, and his other hand is under the blanket, and the way the blanket rises and falls it’s like the parachute game in gym class, and when Henry sees Nora he yells like he just lost Mama all over again, and Nora glides back down the steps, skipping every other one.
One night is an anniversary. An anniversary is when you can run down to where the wild borders order, with the spruce as boundary between your land and the great woods, and to pick dandelions and marigolds and the wild roses lined with untamed petals, and to string them together so each one balances the next. An anniversary is when Henry dumps out all the cans into a great big muddy hole, turning canyons to lakes linked by murky streams. An anniversary is when you put the flowers over Mama’s head and she can see them even though she’s so far down. When it’s time to laugh and then cry and then laugh again. When it’s okay if you mess up and call Henry Daddy.