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.