David Aubuchon

Woodpecker

Once I mis­took the sound of con­struc­tion (a jack­ham­mer? A hand­ful of work­ers ham­mer­ing a quick per­cus­sion?) for the red-head­ed wood­peck­er that nei­ther my broth­er, Rory, my father nor I had ever seen. This was a few years ago, and Dad had been dead for near­ly a week when Rory and I drove the two hun­dred miles south­west of Willow Springs in search of the lake house. Though we called it one, it was by no means a house, but a two-bed­room trail­er sunk into the side of a hill. When we were chil­dren, Dad lift­ed the trail­er with a hydraulic jack, and Rory and I added anoth­er con­crete cylin­der to the stacks wedged under­neath the east­ern floor, more or less, lev­el­ing the trail­er.

I was sur­prised to find a key in the bot­tom of Dad’s tack­le box labeled “lake house” via mask­ing tape and sharpy. We both thought he had sold the trail­er after I then Rory grad­u­at­ed from high school and Mom took Luanne from Missouri—a nomadic time for Dad, when he drift­ed beyond the bor­ders of our lives, only to appear, years lat­er, as an unin­vit­ed phantom’s sig­na­ture on the guest­book at Mom’s sec­ond wed­ding, or, nev­er hav­ing asked for my apart­ment num­ber, found wet and shiv­er­ing in the chilly April rain, lean­ing against my driver’s side door, the day of my dis­ser­ta­tion defense.

Honestly, I think we want­ed to escape Dad’s apart­ment (it had so much lin­ger­ing his­to­ry for me), escape the mem­o­ries of a funer­al only attend­ed by two oblig­at­ed sons, and escape a stor­age unit filled with the ran­dom junk that only the eccen­tric or insane would con­sid­er keep­ing: a box of rag­dolls, their eyes now only a pile of but­tons; a deflat­ed beach ball, blem­ished with heavy leather patch­es; an old, col­lapsed mat­tress, still lying in a cor­ner, where Dad had slept for a lit­tle over a year; three emp­ty, met­al fil­ing cab­i­nets; two iden­ti­cal lawn mow­ers, both miss­ing pull chords…Rory had lift­ed a shoe tree with a bro­ken heel from a dusty card­board box and asked, “How could he hold onto this and not us?”

A plate had shat­tered across the kitchen floor, the cab­i­net gap­ing open with all the oth­er plates peer­ing over the edge, as if they, too, want­ed to jump but were hav­ing sec­ond thoughts. The kitchen table and its chairs had slid against the east­ern wall. Rory found the jack in the bath­room pantry, and by the time we had lev­eled the trail­er one last time, the moon was pok­ing his face through the branch­es of trees slant­i­ng down the back­yard, an invis­i­ble owl warm­ing his vocal chords in the stiff, cool air.

I awoke ear­ly and drove down to Smitty’s to buy cere­al, milk, a cool­er and ice, ham­burg­ers, char­coal and brats for the grill, leav­ing Rory to sleep away the morn­ing. Unlike me, he had chil­dren and a reg­u­lar nine-to-five. The elas­tic hours of my tenure-track posi­tion weighed on my con­science, and the past week I allowed my younger broth­er the vaca­tion he deserved. A quar­ter to ten, the thin alu­minum bath­room door clicked shut fol­lowed by the toilet’s flush—somehow the trail­er had run­ning water but no electricity—and his bare feet flap­ping against the sticky linoleum. His white t-shirt, stretched thin around his bulging stom­ach, revealed a few curl­ing hairs below his navel.

I offered him the Starbucks I was drink­ing, but he shook his head and mean­dered past the counter that served as a bar­ri­er between the liv­ing room and kitchen. He turned a cou­ple times, inspect­ing who knows what, per­haps the dull, vacant cob­webs dan­gling in the cor­ners, or the torn, leather couch that would warm under the win­dow and peel from my skin, when Rory and I as chil­dren, drip­ping from the lake, sprint­ed inside on those hot after­noons. He bent down to one knee and rum­maged through a chest on the oth­er side of the counter; only the spi­ral of his grey hair, cir­cling a bald patch, like water being sucked down a drain, was vis­i­ble from my place at the kitchen table. He stood again with cards in his hand; the thin rub­ber band snapped when he tried to unrav­el it, and the cards left dust on the table. He poured a bowl of cere­al and dealt sev­en cards to each of us, glanc­ing at his before shov­el­ing a spoon­ful of Apple Jacks into his mouth. Crazy eight was Mom’s game, but she was healthy in south­ern New Mexico and rel­a­tive­ly con­tent to see her sons once a year for Christmas, so we played gin rum­my, a game Dad had taught us in the years after the divorce, before he had fad­ed from our lives.

We were in the mid­dle of our sec­ond hand, Rory with three kings spread in front of him and me with no points on the table, when we heard the unmis­tak­ably shrill squawk, the hol­lowed echo of a red-head­ed wood­peck­er, chis­el­ing into the bark of a dis­tant pine or oak. Rory glanced out the win­dow, pulled his cards to his chest; I said, “I can’t believe you remem­ber.”

Do you think that’s it?” he asked.

I set down my cards and shrugged, he pulled on a pair of jeans and a sweater, and we head­ed out, first stick­ing to the woods to either side of the trail­er. Soon we left the woods and took to the street that ran south, direct­ly from the trail­er to the peb­ble beach of the lake, where the docks rise and fall in the light chop pro­duced by wind. But the street was desert­ed in ear­ly March, and my broth­er and I stum­bled into a clear­ing nei­ther remem­bered from child­hood, into a con­struc­tion site, where, imme­di­ate­ly, I felt fool­ish for con­fus­ing the sound of a few men ham­mer­ing away on the sec­ond floor of the skele­tal apart­ments (or was it the sound of the jack ham­mer crack­ing the road’s asphalt, dulled by the dis­tance and the flow­er­ing foliage between the site and the trail­er?) for the illu­sive bird we had almost glimpsed near­ly thir­ty years ear­li­er. Rory laughed abrupt­ly as we turned toward the hill that appeared so much larg­er than it had only a sec­ond before, and I had to sti­fle a snif­fle, rub­bing my eyes with my wrist, when Rory glanced back at the con­struc­tion, mur­mur­ing, “I’ll be damned.”

When we got back to the trail­er, a patrol­man was parked behind my Camry, a man sit­ting in the front seat with him. The offi­cer stood with­out walk­ing toward us, but the oth­er man offered us his hand and asked what we were doing on his prop­er­ty.

When I was an even younger man, more than ten years before my father died, I received a call at three in the morn­ing. A pre­re­cord­ed mes­sage told me it was a col­lect call, and my father’s grind­ing, qui­et voice sim­ply said, “Eduard, it is your father.” The record­ing asked if I would accept the charges. It was storm­ing when I slipped from bed and into the liv­ing room with the phone pressed against my ear, wait­ing for my father’s voice. I wasn’t much sur­prised to find Tiffany, the woman I lived with at the time, sit­ting on the bed read­ing a Margaret Atwood nov­el, as I tip­toed back into the room to put on a pair of cor­duroys and a t-shirt. Tiffany was a light sleep­er, thun­der always woke her, and she want­ed to come with me to pick up my father.

I had nev­er been to the coun­ty jail before, and the only out­door atm was on the oppo­site side of town. We sloshed through pud­dles, pass­ing, turn­ing around and pass­ing again an illu­sive route K, here and there light­ning crack­ing the thin night in the dis­tance. I don’t think I ques­tioned why a man in his mid six­ties would be in jail, let alone in a city he didn’t reside. Tiffany didn’t ask either, but I’m sure, had I been more obser­vant dur­ing those fleet­ing elec­tric flash­es that illu­mi­nat­ed the black asphalt, I would’ve seen a smirk of curios­i­ty across her face. She didn’t know any­thing about my fam­i­ly except that their sto­ries were like all oth­er hoard­ed mem­o­ries of the shy and intro­vert­ed.

The offi­cer who led my father into the lobby—this was after I paid a short, plump women the $500 bail, through a small slit in the bul­let proof window—said a patrol car found him in an emp­ty park­ing lot off Crowder. Impound opened at eight in the morn­ing, if I want­ed to tow his car any­where; his plates had expired two years ago. Dad stood behind the offi­cer, smil­ing bland­ly. Either he had shrunk since I last saw him, or I had for­got­ten, and his hair, which I thought he could nev­er lose, was reced­ing. He played with a thin, white tuft and combed it with his fin­gers to hide the bald­ing as the offi­cer spoke.

You must be Rosa,” Dad said, jut­ting his hand between the front seats. “I’m glad to final­ly meet you.”

Rosa was a girl I had been dat­ing in the last years of my PhD. We were always des­tined for diver­gent paths, and by the time I defend­ed, she had already tak­en a posi­tion at Rutgers. This hap­pened months before I had last seen my father, near­ly six years ear­li­er, a day he drove the twelve hours from Kentucky, with­out telling me, to be found sop­ping wet in my dri­ve­way, the same dis­tant, curl­ing smile on his lips. But he hadn’t asked about Rosa the day of my dis­ser­ta­tion defense, and I had nev­er told him. Probably hav­ing heard me refer to her once, he had saved the name away and cre­at­ed grand sto­ry lines of his son and the beau­ti­ful Rosa’s life, incor­po­rat­ing the type of details far beyond what I was ever capa­ble of telling anoth­er.

Tiffany shook his hand and said, “Tiffany,” not force­ful­ly, but she glanced at me with one eye­brow raised. In look­ing back it’s easy to say that Tiffany and I were nev­er going to work, but did I know that then? Perhaps there will be anoth­er sto­ry to tell, one about the loves that I could have had, about the end­less love that I left aban­doned, like a sleep­ing infant on orphan­age steps, because I was too scared of love, of women, of men, but this sto­ry is about my father, and in regards to Tiffany and the rela­tion­ship we could’ve had, I can only say, now, that noth­ing my father did could’ve ruined it any­more than it was meant to be.  So in the dark of the hum­ming car, it’s pos­si­ble I mis­ap­pre­hend­ed Tiffany’s look of accu­sa­tion for a look of amuse­ment, but I don’t hold my father account­able, even when he quick­ly tried to cov­er his tracks with one of those lit­tle lies I remem­bered so well from child­hood rolling effort­less­ly off his tongue: “Of course, yes, Tiffany. I have heard so much about you.”

When I returned to that apart­ment, for the first time in three years, to take care of Dad’s things, every room quiv­ered with mem­o­ry: brew­ing cof­fee in the drafty kitchen brought Tiffany’s ghost glid­ing around the cor­ner in a night gown to alight on my lap, or sit­ting at the couch, my father’s long over­due util­i­ty bill (that I would’ve end­ed up pay­ing, even had he still been alive) reshuf­fled itself into my ex-girlfriend’s nov­el. I would read her words late into the night on that couch after she fell asleep, reorder­ing the hand­writ­ten pages exact­ly how she left them. But the morn­ing Dad arrived into our lives, Tiffany had hard­ly begun her work, and he fell asleep sit­ting up, before I had time to find a blan­ket.

The tow truck came while Dad and I were eat­ing break­fast, and he only blinked, cleared his throat and dipped his toast into the pool of yoke on his plate. I hadn’t noticed until that morn­ing the loose folds of skin hang­ing from his jaws or the sag­ging green of his low­er eye­lids. He had recent­ly show­ered, and his hair looked even thin­ner with beads of water drip­ping from it.

You mov­ing?” the tow truck dri­ver asked as I signed the papers and wrote a check. When I didn’t answer, he said, “Don’t know how you fit all that stuff in such a lit­tle car.”

Watching him walk down the wood­en, out­door steps of our build­ing, back toward his truck, Tiffany slid between me and the door. She cupped her hands around my ear and whis­pered that I should check the bath­room. Dad’s clothes from the night before were drenched, bub­bles of soap ris­ing in the fab­ric. His shirt and shorts hung from the show­er rod, his socks and under­wear stuck to the sink.

It’s more effi­cient,” he said, tear­ing a piece of bacon in half. I wouldn’t find out until lat­er, from Rory, that he had been wash­ing his clothes that way for years, sneak­ing into hos­pi­tals or pub­lic gyms, in the twi­light hours before close, to show­er ful­ly dressed, rub­bing his bar of soap into a lath­er on the cot­ton. Though I was, I shouldn’t have been sur­prised. Once on a sum­mer vaca­tion, he stopped on an aban­doned patch of Route 44 and told Rory and I to hop into the trunk. Luanne was only an infant at the time, and I cra­dled her. In an effort not to crush my sis­ter, I arched my back, smack­ing my head with every bump in the high­way. When we stopped, I heard Dad telling Mom to duck under the seat, then the door slammed shut and I didn’t breath, only caress­ing my lit­tle sister’s hair, pray­ing she wouldn’t cry. She slept between Mom and Dad in the sin­gle bed, while Rory and I spent the night on the floor. No one but Dad was allowed to talk, because he thought the night clerk might hear our voic­es and charge him extra.

The car parked out­side was dif­fer­ent, and the chil­dren, who had once lay in his trunk, were ful­ly-grown, but the man was still the same. His entire life spilled from box­es stacked to the ceil­ing and lit­tered the floor, between the seats and fast-food wrap­pers.

Should he stay with us?” Tiffany asked, pulling her arms tight to her ribs and shiv­er­ing in the crisp air. The car’s paint was peel­ing, and the wheel well was rust­ed. I told her absolute­ly not, when she said she could go back to liv­ing with her old room­mate. “But, he is your father,” she said, and I took the wind as an excuse not to hear her.

In the apart­ment, Dad had already fin­ished break­fast, his damp clothes wrapped in a plas­tic Wal-Mart sack squeezed under his armpit. He froze in the cen­ter of the liv­ing room, when I opened the door, like he were a child caught out of bed past cur­few. He said he would stick to the back roads, the zigzag­ging high­ways to avoid cops. He said he had a place a few miles north, but “actu­al­ly it’s a few hours north,” he cor­rect­ed when I told him I could take him.

Are you liv­ing in your car?” Standing in the door­way to block his exit, Tiffany pulled a hoody on over her head.

Dad looked from me to her, then down at the bag in his hand. I would’ve just let him leave, but Tiffany wasn’t going to get out of the way. Sitting down on the couch, Dad slow­ly untied his shoes and slid them under the cof­fee table; Tiffany sat down next to him. “We need to fig­ure this out,” she said.

We tried to tell her there was noth­ing to fig­ure out, and, real­ly, we both believed this. Drifting away before he had even moved from Missouri, I didn’t think either of us want­ed the oth­er around. How does a forty-year-old son apol­o­gize to his father, and who asks a man liv­ing out of his car to cry for his son’s for­give­ness?

The next morn­ing, I rent­ed a stor­age unit for him to live in and took care of his car insur­ance. Later, Tiffany insist­ed I let him stay with us, but I thought it was bet­ter this way. Dad had been liv­ing in the unit for a few months by this time, and we were sit­ting on the couch, watch­ing the dis­cov­ery chan­nel, when I told her I had to make a choice, and I was choos­ing her over him. Later—when I had a job offer that would take me from Willow Springs, Tiffany fin­ished with course work, and things had got­ten so bad that I only felt close to her when I snuck into the liv­ing room to read her nov­el, once she had fall­en asleep—I saw my words on the page; they are spo­ken from a char­ac­ter who has pur­sued the pro­tag­o­nist for thir­ty pages, and she says to him, “You haven’t cho­sen him or me but your­self.”

She had been gone for over a month by the time I packed my things and moved to Iowa, but those words stuck with me. Not as my words, exact­ly, but as the character’s, and some­thing about my words in his mouth made me fear I would turn into him. So, in a way, it was only for self­ish rea­sons that I renewed my lease and left my father the keys, not know­ing he would die there near­ly a decade lat­er.

I don’t think of Tiffany any dif­fer­ent­ly from the few oth­er women, or oth­er peo­ple, for that mat­ter, I have ever loved, but I can say—whether this is due to hav­ing vis­it­ed the apart­ment, in which we spent three years togeth­er, rum­mag­ing through Dad’s pos­ses­sions with Rory, I do not know—she is one of those peo­ple I can pic­ture with strik­ing clar­i­ty. I remem­ber her wild, black hair in the morn­ing, how it strayed across my chest, and I recall those auburn eyes, sharp enough to slice through my shame, like a katana through an apple. I remem­ber the way she would glare, as I tip­toed into the bed­room, after one of our mon­u­men­tal arguments—she would throw every­thing at me, be it a shoe, a book, once a cof­fee mug I had received at the department’s Christmas par­ty, Rudolph land­ing a heavy blow across my right brow, but I always felt I had been the aggres­sor, that my silence and gen­tle nods, or slow­ly parsed, qui­et words had inflict­ed more pain than any ceram­ic.

No, there was noth­ing spe­cial about her and me, just as there had been noth­ing spe­cial about Rosa and me, or any num­ber of women, whose names I will not part with at this time, and me, and, now, I won­der if it was I who des­ig­nat­ed these rela­tion­ships as place hold­ers, where the women who grad­u­at­ed from them could look back and say that it was “only hav­ing fun,” or “a waste of time,” or the cru­elest of all, “prac­tice for the real thing.” A part of me wish­es I could blame my failed rela­tion­ships on my par­ents, but their fights were nonex­is­tent, Mom hoard­ing hurt­ful mem­o­ries one by one, like a child fill­ing her pock­ets with seashells, until they slice her legs with each step. Dad was obliv­i­ous to the divorce, until the moment it hap­pened and, per­haps, a few moments after, as he tried to live with us until, one after­noon, a cou­ple offi­cers helped Mom move his belong­ings to the street, a lock­smith chang­ing the dead­bolt. My sis­ter, Luanne, was only six at the time, but she fol­lowed Mom up and down the steps ask­ing to help, try­ing to lift a box of Dad’s old records by her­self, until one of the offi­cers lift­ed it, laughed soft­ly and said, “Poor thing.”

My sis­ter would refuse even from an ear­ly age to spend every oth­er week­end with Dad. I have this image of a sev­en-year-old Luanne stand­ing in the land­ing, no more than four feet tall, wear­ing those pink shorts that she hates because they are too girly—she want­ed to be like her old­er brothers—that wouldn’t cov­er the scratch­es on her knees from falling dur­ing an ear­li­er game of tag with Rory. My broth­er is already out­side with his week­end bag slung over his shoul­der, and I am halfway onto the porch, the storm door clat­ter­ing against my left shoul­der, when Luanne says, “I’m not going.”

Dad picks up her bag, an old, turquoise, can­vas suit­case embroi­dered with flow­ers that he had found for a quar­ter at a garage sale, and he says, “Get in the car and we will talk about it.” Luanne tells him no, and Mom places one hand on my sister’s shoul­der, anoth­er holds the phone, her thumb rest­ing on the num­ber 9 as the dial tone fills the silence that Dad can­not. He turns to me and ush­ers me out the door, where Rory stands on the walk­way lead­ing to the dri­ve­way, and he says, “I don’t know what your mother’s done to her.”

Later I would won­der if that was the moment some­thing died in him, some father­ly sense of attach­ment, some urge to be in his children’s lives with­out simul­ta­ne­ous­ly call­ing for war on their moth­er. Regardless, he nev­er again demand­ed Luanne come to the lake house, where he, Rory and I spent our days play­ing gin rum­my or walk­ing down to the beach in our swim trunks. Dad fell asleep on a tow­el, whose cor­ners flapped in a wind car­ried across the water, as if it were ready to fly off with him aboard. I was fif­teen that first sum­mer and old enough to notice how Dad hard­ly looked Rory or me in the eyes, or how often he slept on the couch with infomer­cials play­ing, but I was at such a self­ish age.

That was the sum­mer I met Selena. Her moth­er and step­fa­ther were spend­ing the sum­mer in Morocco, and by way of boy­cotting their rela­tion­ship, she had stayed behind at her grandmother’s, a fact I wouldn’t know for many years. She used to sit on the dock near­est the beach from which Rory and I wad­ed, slosh­ing waves and dunk­ing each oth­er in the refresh­ing, June water. She had this way of dip­ping her toe in the water that left me entranced. I hard­ly think she real­ized what she was doing, but every minute or two, as she sat on the dock, read­ing, her blonde hair flip­ping in and out of her eyes in the wind, she sub­merged only the big toe of her left foot and imme­di­ate­ly pulled it back out, leav­ing a dime sized rip­ple to undu­late soft­ly in all direc­tions, until it was con­sumed by the next wave that gen­tly lift­ed the dock and lapped at Rory’s and my chests.

When the water had already broiled and cooled again, and sum­mer had dark­ened my skin and thinned my tor­so in a way that made me feel invin­ci­ble, bold­er, I lead Rory to the dock and we took turns run­ning past her to flip into the murky water or bel­ly flop or can­non­ball, of course yelling its name as we did so—it was half the fun—but she didn’t take notice. She shift­ed a lit­tle, wip­ing the water from her thin thighs that were a few shades dark­er than my chest, and con­tin­ued to read with­out a glance.

By the next week­end with Dad, I had devised a plan. He had begun to pick us up ear­ly on Fridays. He said that if Luanne didn’t come, he deserved more time with us—an argu­ment that only made Mom shrug, before telling us to get pack­ing. For weeks I had uti­lized the hour dri­ve to the lake to reac­quaint myself with ado­ra­tion for Selena: as Dad hugged wind­ing high­way 57, with a squeal of the tires, and cursed our Mother, call­ing her a whore, I heard noth­ing but the soft, rhyth­mic waves, the rush of water pound­ing in my ears, as I imag­ined Selena on the dock, the sun­light glim­mer­ing off a wet ankle, a fore­fin­ger lin­ger­ing on a fresh­ly turned page, as though she couldn’t decide whether it was the right one or not, and the smile I had once caught on her face, when she over­heard me telling Rory that who­ev­er swam past the buoy in the dis­tance would be gob­bled up by the lake­mon­ster.

The lake­mon­ster had been Dad’s favorite sto­ry to tell. Before Luanne was born, when Rory was young enough for Dad to hold his hand, as we walked back from the water, he would describe how the mon­ster swam silent­ly toward his prey. “Usually an unsus­pect­ing, ath­let­ic boy,” he said, rub­bing my wet hair and wink­ing. “Or a beau­ti­ful, lov­ing wife,” he added, as he crept toward Mom and tick­led her with his free hand. “Watch out! The lakemonster’ll nab you!” he yelled, and Mom squirmed away. But it had been years since Dad men­tioned the lake­mon­ster, and any time I asked him to tell us the sto­ry, he just turned up the vol­ume on the TV. He pre­tend­ed like he couldn’t hear me, or he told Rory and I to go down to the lake and quit both­er­ing him.

Though I didn’t think of it at the time, my plan must’ve sprout­ed from the time when Dad used to send me on lit­tle mis­sions of love. We would be at the beach, while Mom stayed home with Rory, too young for swim­ming, and Dad would point out a woman in a pink biki­ni lying on her stom­ach in the sand, her eyes closed or under thick sun­glass­es, her long, tan legs crossed at the ankles. He would say, “I’ve got a mis­sion for you,” and I’d be off run­ning toward her to ask if she need­ed me to pro­tect her from the lake­mon­ster. Sometimes he’d just tell me to go show her my mus­cles, and I’d prac­tice flex­ing my four year old biceps, show her the karate kick I prac­ticed in the base­ment back home. Then Dad arrived, apol­o­giz­ing and thank­ing her for watch­ing a sin­gle father’s son. And just like that he was in, Mom chang­ing Rory’s dia­per back home or cook­ing din­ner, while Dad sat next to the woman in the hot sand and shooed me into the water.

At the time I might’ve rec­og­nized the implic­it guilt in these trysts that I had unknow­ing­ly cre­at­ed for my father. Perhaps, this kept me from telling him about Selena, or, more like­ly, I feared that any men­tion of love would only fuel his anguish over Mom. So, as Dad raced angri­ly toward the lake house, I forewent telling him how, lat­er that after­noon, Rory would flail in the water with­in yards of where Selena sat, bat­tling for his life against the lake­mon­ster, before I’d run across the dock, strip­ping cloth­ing as I went to dive past Selena and hero­ical­ly save him. Getting so caught up in the act, Rory near­ly drowned the both of us. It took much longer than we had planned for me to lug him out of the water. We col­lapsed, glis­ten­ing on the rocks, scoop­ing large breaths of air into our lungs with hol­lowed gasps as dark­ness crawled in. When I thought to look, Selena was gone from the dock, appar­ent­ly hav­ing missed the entire show.

It was years lat­er before I found that I had been wrong. By some method of fate­ful toy­ing, I hap­pened to meet Selena again the sec­ond year of my MFA. Twenty-nine and in her third year of res­i­den­cy in Manhattan, I became reac­quaint­ed with her one after­noon, when I teetered into the emer­gency room, in late July. During a fac­ul­ty soft­ball game, a pitch hit me in the thigh some­time between sit­ting on the bench, pop­ping the tab of a Coors Light, and stand­ing in the out­field, drink­ing a Busch. Whether due to the alco­hol or the fact that noth­ing was bro­ken, my thigh hard­ly stung by the time I made it to the emer­gency room, where after thir­ty min­utes a nurse in yel­low scrubs ush­ered me into a tiny cubi­cle, the flu­o­res­cent light pen­e­trat­ing every inch of the per­fect­ly white walls and floor.

She rec­og­nized me, though the inci­dent of the lake­mon­ster was the sec­ond to last time I saw her; on the last, she asked me Rory’s full name as I stood on the dock, my feet togeth­er, knees bent, drip­ping arms out­stretched for a dive, and she had slipped out of my sum­mer before I surfaced—it was the only time we had ever spo­ken. It helped that she had my chart, she said. I laughed and she fid­dled with the stetho­scope around her neck with long, slen­der fin­gers. Her hair was much dark­er now, and she cut it short, a lit­tle bob dan­gling just above the col­lar of her med­ical coat that should’ve aged her but only accent­ed her love­ly, sharp nose and cheek­bones. After she declared me to be rel­a­tive­ly healthy, aside from slight ine­bri­a­tion, I thanked her, and she added that I was lucky it was only a soft­ball and not a lake­mon­ster.

Confusing lust and a few inter­twined mem­o­ries for love, we spent quite a bit of time togeth­er after that: I would bring two cups of cof­fee to the cafe­te­ria and ask about her patients, or I would sit in the emer­gency room for hours with a small, black leather pock­et­book in hand. I not­ed the glaze of shock drip­ping down a teenager’s face like can­dle wax; or the quick­en­ing rock of his mother’s calf against her knee, fur­ther down, her ankle splash­ing about to a help­less rhythm in the air; how, though a child sit­ting next to me in his mother’s lap wailed inces­sant­ly, I could make note of every item a man in his late thir­ties mur­mured from four or five yards away, where he sat with a grat­ing scrape across his fore­head and left cheek, hold­ing his frac­tured left arm in his right hand and whis­per­ing, like a mantra, the shop­ping list he had no doubt been on his way to ful­fill before the acci­dent. Soon my child­hood adu­la­tion and the awk­ward, growth-spurt-gait of my love would wear on Selena. She would tell me that she need­ed space as we sat on the front porch at a mutu­al friend’s par­ty, watch­ing herds of under­grad­u­ates migrate from down­town, stum­bling in and out of a street light’s glare in drunk­en stu­pors, but when things were still rel­a­tive­ly hap­py, and I thought I could con­tin­ue to love her in that child­ish way more akin to wor­ship, she agreed to accom­pa­ny me to Luanne’s wed­ding.

The red­brick Episcopal Church’s audi­to­ri­um con­sist­ed of three lines of pews and a bal­cony fac­ing a cen­tral stage, fit­ted with an organ and two rows of choir seats. After Rory and I had prac­ticed our slow prod down the aisle on either side of Luanne, her slen­der, pale fore­arm hooked around my elbow, as I took care not to step on her train or not to speed ahead of her, Selena and I snuck up the tight walled, mahogany stair­case that spi­raled to the bal­cony. A friend of Luanne’s was set­ting up a tri­pod to film the wed­ding. We leaned over the balustrade to watch the cen­tipede of grooms­men, still in their under­shirts, wig­gle out of the bap­tismal cham­ber; it squeezed around the organ and descend­ed a small pair of steps to the left, ten­ta­tive­ly, two feet at a time, and in not so many words Selena told me she nev­er want­ed a wed­ding. Actually she said, “Fuck wed­dings,” and the way she glared at me when I laughed, I had to clar­i­fy: Rory had said some­thing almost iden­ti­cal the night before, when I had told him Dad wasn’t invit­ed.

I don’t care how uncom­fort­able or obnox­ious it might be,” Rory had said, lift­ing a rum and coke off the bar, its glass adver­tis­ing the hotel in which we were both stay­ing, and spin­ning his coast­er with his free hand. “Fuck this wed­ding,” he final­ly added before fin­ish­ing off his drink.

But invit­ed or not, Dad had come. This was before Mom had remar­ried, and Dad had been unteth­ered from the fam­i­ly for a few years, call­ing to say hap­py birth­day from Toledo, where he worked in a glass blow­ing fac­to­ry, send­ing a Christmas card with a Wisconsin PO Box return address, and “ring­ing up just to check in” a few months lat­er from Oklahoma City. When Rory had talked to him only a week before, he had called from out­side a cab­in in the Bruneau Dunes, a camp­site a lit­tle over an hour out­side Boise. Though he had no idea Rory and I had been com­mis­sioned to fill his place, nor that Luanne was even engaged, he had sim­ply grunt­ed know­ing­ly, over the wind-crack­ling sta­t­ic, as Rory ram­bled excit­ed­ly about the wed­ding.

It was my job to place my palm in Luanne’s and gen­tly guide it to her fiancé’s. Walking toward her seat as the cer­e­mo­ny began, Selena point­ed out the dark oily streaks below my pock­ets, said, “Look at how ner­vous you are: you’re so cute,” and kissed me on the cheek. A minute lat­er, the song start­ed, and the pews col­lec­tive­ly creaked. The audi­ence shuf­fled their feet as one giant mass, and I was con­scious of my notice­ably slimy arm, when Luanne looped hers around my elbow. Everyone turned to us once we entered the audi­to­ri­um. I could almost hear their eyes—all those care­free hazel’s, the lazy greens clos­er to blue, those browns deep­en­ing with age toward an infi­nite black tight­ened to a slit as we approached. Those eyes were cluck­ing silent­ly. Wrestling large, toothy smiles into their lips, inward­ly the watch­ers shook their heads, moth­ers glanced thank­ful­ly at their hus­bands, the old­er cou­ples squeezed each other’s hands and only one girl out­ward­ly showed the agi­ta­tion, react­ing to our oth­er­ness which qui­et­ly stirred every­one else to con­sol­i­da­tion and sym­pa­thy. Standing on a pew with both arms wrapped around her moth­er, the small girl pulled away and point­ed at Rory, Luanne and I paused beside her row; she asked over the music, “Why doesn’t she have a dad­dy?”

I for­got my line and only stared blankly, at first the priest, then Luanne and final­ly Rory, when I was asked who gave this woman. Luanne said qui­et­ly, “They do.” The priest dis­missed us with a gen­tle nod. A few steps lat­er, I noticed him sit­ting on the bal­cony next to the tri­pod. He sat on the first pew, wear­ing a blue polo and a pair of kha­ki shorts. One leg was crossed over the oth­er and he sat slight­ly reclined with his hands rest­ing in his lap. With his hair still splotched with brown, his relaxed, obser­vant demeanor and the way he dressed, one would think he was just some nosey wan­der­er off the street. After Selena whis­pered my name and drew me away from that image of a lone­ly, aban­doned father, after small ker­nels of rice lit­tered the side­walk and church steps, and a few pic­tures had been snapped, I slipped away and climbed the steps, but he had already gone, leav­ing no trace, aside from the fleet­ing glance I was nev­er meant to steal.

Since his death, I often imag­ine Dad lurk­ing qui­et­ly in the back­ground, dur­ing the events of my life, as he had at Luanne’s wed­ding. I pic­ture him stand­ing in a snowy clear­ing 60 miles north of Indianapolis, where at the age of nine­teen, I lost con­trol of my Altima, rolling the car twice and break­ing a rib and an arm; I pic­ture him in the back of a crowd­ed bar, lean­ing against the wall, behind a pool table, as two bounc­ers car­ry me away from the first girl I ever thought I’d loved and the man she had sunk into an unlit, qui­et booth with; and I pic­ture Dad, sit­ting qui­et­ly in a rock­ing chair, across the street that night, when Selena told me it was over; but the image of him I like most is an hon­est one.

I was eight and Rory six. Mom, tired and sev­en months heavy with Luanne, had opt­ed to sleep, and Dad crept into my and Rory’s room to nudge us gen­tly awake. The grav­el road lead­ing to the lake was slick and glis­ten­ing with dew, the water in the dis­tance rip­pled, glar­ing in the sun­light, a flock of geese glid­ing along its sur­face, and Dad reached his arm across our bod­ies to stop us, com­plet­ing the silence of the morn­ing. This was when we heard a rapid tap­ping in the dis­tance: with Dad’s eyes angled down, his head tilt­ed to the side, lis­ten­ing intent­ly for the red-head­ed woodpecker’s echoed chis­el­ing to con­tin­ue. He smiled; his brown hair, with­out even a hint of grey, twist­ed in the breeze off the lake, as he turned and ush­ered us into the woods. He said, “They are rare in Missouri. I’ve only glimpsed one,” and lead us between maples and cedars, care­ful­ly around claw­ing thorn bush­es. Pausing every few sec­onds with a small branch pushed aside, he focused on the shrill squawk, the drum line peck­ing. The way he described the bird’s long, tweez­ered beak, the check­ered under­sides of its wings, its vibrant, red ski mask of a head, I dreamt we were in search of a myth­i­cal beast, being lead by the most hero­ic adven­tur­er. In a few years this adven­tur­er would no longer leave the trailer’s reclin­er, except to shut­tle Rory and I back home, and he would only speak to us words of sad­ness and frus­tra­tion or enig­mat­ic indif­fer­ence, but this is where I want to leave him: on the edge of a clear­ing was a stream, its chilled, bit­ing water clear and rustling, and Dad wad­ed into it with Rory in his hands and me cling­ing to his back. The water grasped at his chest, but I knew he would make it—the bird must have been just on the oth­er side of the bank, his squawk lead­ing my father, and I thought that wher­ev­er he goes, wher­ev­er his whim, wher­ev­er his myth­i­cal crea­tures might lead him, I would fol­low.

~

David Aubuchon is cur­rent­ly employed in South Korea as an English teacher. He grad­u­at­ed from the University of Missouri. He has pub­lished in Thick Jam and has interned at the Missouri Review.