BY DIANA KOCH
Copyright is held by the author.
IT SEEMS odd talking to you this way. If anyone comes by and hears me, they’ll think I’m weird, or high on something. Or they’ll assume I’m just as fucked-up as my old man.
I’ve been trying to figure out for a long time why things turned out the way they did. Maybe all three of us could’ve been more understanding, or maybe it wouldn’t have made any difference. Turning it over and over in my mind, I’ve finally figured out that there’s no way of knowing. Sometimes things are just meant to be. Sometimes we have to accept people for who they are. I get it.
You were standing at the sink peeling potatoes when I came in that day. The kitchen smelled like Pine Sol and Bleach, reminding me to leave my shoes on the mat by the door. You didn’t hear me come in ’cause when I said, “Hi Mom” you jumped and said “Why did you sneak up on me like that?”You didn’t say “Hi” back, just stared at me like I walked in on you in the bathroom without knocking. I could tell that you’d been crying. Your eyes were all red and puffy with that black stuff staining your cheeks and mucous bubbling out of your nose. I looked away. I didn’t want to see your pain, and I didn’t want to feel it either. I had been feeling enough of my own since Dad left. Besides, I thought it was all your fault — his leaving I mean. Maybe if you hadn’t nagged him so much about money and responsibility, he would be here right now to say, “Hi, Buddy, how was your day?”
We hadn’t heard a word from him in the three months since he walked out with only a duffel bag slung over his shoulder and the keys in his hand for his rustbucket Chevy truck. He said he’d call me in a couple of days, but he didn’t. I freaked out when you told me not to hold my breath. But that day, as I did every day, I checked the answering machine, just in case. The only message was the one reminding you of some kind of medical appointment.
I went up to my room and slammed the door so you’d know that I was just as upset as you were. Not that I wanted you to come up. You and I had been manoeuvring solo through our own private darkness for some time. Most days we talked in syllables instead of words, which was OK by me.
It was Dad with his crazy antics who used to make me laugh. Dad was the one who set off a game of touch football in the living room and paid little attention when a lamp was knocked over or a vase broke. Dad was the one who would get me out of school and take me fishing for the afternoon. He was also the one who taught me to play pool and poker and then made me promise not to tell you.
There hadn’t been much to laugh about since he left, not for me anyway, and I guess not for you either, because this was the third time in as many weeks that I had caught you crying.
I should’ve been doing my homework up there in my room, but instead I took down the shoe box containing stuff that I wanted to keep. Right on top was a photo of me and Dad at Disneyworld. We were both wearing those funky mouse ears and eating huge
ice cream cones. I was eight when Dad took me out of school for a whole week. We drove all the way to Florida in his pickup with the cracked windshield, stopping just long
enough to get hot dogs and gas. You didn’t come. You said that somebody had to work and keep a roof over our heads.
I looked at that photo for a long time, trying to remember what it felt like living in that make believe world, the sun warm on my face and the shadows of our real life no where in sight. We brought you back a music box in the shape of Cinderella’s castle that played Somewhere over the Rainbow. You said it was nice, but the money could have been put to better use paying the hydro bill. Dad laughed, but I thought about what you said every time I looked at that music box collecting dust on the top shelf of the bookcase. I grew to hate it because it was a stain on the memory of the good time Dad and I had together.
We didn’t talk much that night at supper. I wolfed down my mashed potatoes and meatloaf, eager to escape to my room. Just as I was about to get up from the table, you put a piece of butterscotch pie with whipped cream in front of me. It’s still my favourite dessert, even though no one makes it like you. I wondered what the special occasion was, but I didn’t ask. Just ate the pie, feeling the heat of your eyes on me. When I finished, you reached over and put your hand on my arm and said you had to go to the hospital the next day for an operation. My stomach did a somersault and the panic I felt must have been plastered all over my face because you stroked my cheek and said not to worry. That
everything would be all right. You said that I would be staying with Aunt Jessie and Uncle Bill while you recuperated. I shrugged and said whatever, then disappeared into my room.
You died three days later, just a week before my 13th birthday. In the time before the funeral, I kept waiting for Dad to come back. I needed him to put his arm around my shoulders, to take me for a drive down by the river, to sit with me around the fire pit in the backyard. I needed him to help me make sense of what had happened to you. Most of all, I needed him to tell me everything was going to be cool, and that he would look after me.
The day after the funeral, I overheard Aunt Jessie say to Uncle Bill that it made her doubly sad you having such a hard life with my father and his problems. And what had you seen in him in the first place? Uncle Bill replied that you had gone into the marriage with eyes wide open. But what kind of a man stays away from his wife’s funeral and deserts his own flesh and blood Aunt Jessie wanted to know.
I didn’t care what my relatives said about Dad. They didn’t know him like I did. He must have had a good reason for not showing up for the funeral. I was certain he would come back for me, and I looked for him every day, on the way to and from school, at the park, down by his favourite bar, even in the parking lot of the beer store.
I daydreamed about Dad returning in a shiny new car, maybe a Corvette convertible, or at the very least a brand new Chevy pick-up, and then driving away with him to a ranch in Alberta, where Dad and I would ride horses across acres and acres of prairie grass. At night we would sit around a fire under the stars and Dad would tell me stories about the time he was fighting the Taliban in Afghanistan.
Two years to the day after you died, I was sitting in McDonalds with my friend Jeff. He went to the cemetery with me that morning and was treating me to a burger and fries because I spent my last five dollars on a bunch of carnations. When I stood up to get serviettes for us, there was Dad leaning against one of the trash bins. He smiled and said “Hi, Buddy, how’s it going?” as if he had just come back from buying cigarettes at the corner store. He was unshaven and his hair hung limp from under a sweat-stained Blue Jays cap. The smell of stale smoke and beer oozed out of him and I saw that the lady emptying her tray into the bin looked at him with disgust. He didn’t seem to notice. Just kept smiling at me. I guess he was waiting for me to say something.
Even though I ‘d played out our reunion hundreds of times in my mind, down to the very last detail of what I was going to say to him, my tongue felt glued to the roof of my mouth and the happiness I had imagined didn’t come. He took a big swig of the coffee he was holding before he told me that he was in town to take care of some unfinished business.
I found my voice then, and blurted out that you were dead — that I was living with Aunt Jessie and Uncle Bill. He nodded and said he knew. He took another gulp of coffee, looked down at his cracked boots, said “See ya, Bud,” and walked away, leaving me standing there like a lost little kid.
I stumbled back to the booth where Jeff was waiting for me. I tried my best to act normal. Jeff asked me if I knew the homeless guy who had been talking to me. I was too embarrassed to tell him he was my father, so I said no, and made up some excuse about the man asking for directions.
That night, I cried for the first time since you died, more because I was mad rather than sad. I was pissed at you for dying and at Dad for the uncaring way he greeted me after a two-year absence. And I was furious with both of you for leaving me. But most of all, I hated myself for all the time that I ‘d wasted on stupid daydreams.
I didn’t expected Dad to show up at Aunt Jessie’s and Uncle Bill’s, but three days later when I came home from school, he was sitting at the kitchen table drinking coffee, a
cigarette smouldering between two fingers. He had cleaned himself up, but with his face cleanly shaven, it shocked me to see the deep lines in his leathery skin and the spongy half moons under his bloodshot eyes. He motioned to a chair and told me to sit down. He had something to tell me. There were some official looking papers on the table. He flicked the cigarette into his coffee cup and picked up the papers. His hands shook so bad that he had to put them down again. I turned my head so that he wouldn’t see my eyes watering.
I’ve signed custody of you over to your aunt and uncle, he told me with a laugh I didn’t recognize. Then he got up, ruffled my hair and said he had better go.
Out in the hall, I heard Uncle Bill tell Dad that he was doing the right thing. That he could come back to visit anytime when he got himself straightened around. Dad laughed and said nothing was going to change so it was better this way. He had places he
wanted to see and things he wanted to do. A kid would just be a monkey on his back. And besides, he didn’t want me to grow up to be like him.
The screen door banged and I heard his footsteps crunching on the gravel drive.
That’s when I really got to know Dad. I saw him like you had seen him.