Fiction from NER 42.3 (2021)
His face now is rough, his forehead lined, and there is an indigo ring around his deep brown irises; his fingers have curled like the roots of an oak tree, his moustache and the minute stubble on his chin have dulled to silver. When she looks at him now, she sees two men: the warm, familiar face from childhood, jovial and fresh, and the new face, no less warm, but, at times, only just recognizable. Like looking at an archetype, the type of wizened black man photographers love to capture in close-up, black-and-white portraits.
The other day, he called her, and she got the sense that he had nothing and everything to say. That he had called her to see if he could, if she would answer, expecting nothing, because it was him, her father. She’d been sitting at the window that looked out into the sad, shared patio, with the broken flagstones dyed, by rain and time, some shade between brown and green and gray, and the wrought iron gate with the bent spike that made it somehow piteous, like a knight with a soft silver sword. When you were sad, looking out there made you sadder, but in a way that was strangely beautiful, the way that your own blood could have a slightly satisfying taste when you sucked it from a fresh wound.
Hearing his voice, she’d begun to think about her own mortality, and his. How time passed beneath your notice, even though your entire life was about time. And she missed him, though they weren’t very far away from each other. That wasn’t it, wasn’t how she missed him. She missed the version of him who’d wake her up in the middle of the night, peeking into her room in his white underwear, checking. And she’d pretend to be asleep but keep one eye slightly open because his dark presence in the darkness of her doorway blocked out the darkness that she feared. That was it, really. He stood between her and fear. And now that they were so much older, she was more aware than ever that time had been passing all along and was closer than ever to taking him, and she didn’t know what she was going to do without him.
For a brief moment during that call she wished that they were the type to say I love you. They never had been, though they found other ways of saying it that weren’t words, weren’t speaking. He asked her to drive out with him to deliver the secretary desk—her mother never liked to go to these things. He didn’t need her there, of course; these deliveries were routine for him. What he didn’t say was that he wanted her there. A little drive, like those late-night drives they used to take when she was a colicky baby. He wouldn’t say he just missed her. It wasn’t their way. When she said yes, she hoped it was enough, that he understood that it was yes, and thank you, and all the other things.
It took her a train, two buses, and nearly two hours to get from her ivy-choked Greenwich Village apartment to her parents’ White Plains colonial, with its canary yellow dining room and mismatched linoleum tiles in the kitchen. Now they are driving with the windows open and the air conditioning on. She knows he hates this—he is viscerally opposed to waste in any form—but she also knows he is tolerating it because she can’t stand the harshness of air conditioning alone.
She has one hand out the window, and the wind that smacks her palm is damp, assertively hot. It is record-breakingly warm, and she is trying not to mention global warming because if she does, her father will accuse her of “getting all worked up.” And it’s not that he doesn’t believe in global warming, but that he’s more afraid of her anxiety about it than he is of the thing itself. It hasn’t always been this way between them.
There was the story of Gus and the Devil. It was in a big book of Black folklore that he liked to read to her when she was little. The story was that Gus saw the Devil in his mirror one night, standing far away and just looking at him. The next night, he saw him again, only the Devil was closer this time. Each night, the Devil got closer and closer, until Gus could see the flames in the pupils of his eyes.
So Gus threw a cloth up over the mirror, but it was too late; the next night, the Devil stepped right on in, dressed up in Gus’s reflection. He snatched Gus up and threw him into the mirror instead, and took over Gus’s whole life. And no one—not Gus’s wife or his mother or his friends—ever knew the difference.
The story scared her and her father both, though she never asked him to stop reading it to her. There was a glee in their shared terror; she’d thought him not afraid of anything, and it was an honest pleasure for the two of them to be afraid of the same thing, even if it meant she had nightmares about the Devil stepping through her mirror. Even if it meant that, to this day, she can’t stand a mirror at night.
As she looks at his face now, speeding down 495, she wonders if that story ever really scared him, or if he had just pretended, the way he used to pretend to lose to her at arm wrestling. They are on their way to Montauk to deliver the secretary. It is an eighteenth-century Queen Anne desk, likely worth thousands of dollars, though her father probably sold it for far less than he could have. He is a businessman, but his heart gets in the way.
Once, when she was a kid, she asked her father if he’d always wanted to be an antiques dealer, and he’d only laughed. But he has a passion for it that she can see. She is trying now to stay awake for the nearly three-hour trip. He won’t let her take over half of the drive, so the least she can do is keep him company. His truck smells like him, a mixture of his cologne—Fabergé Brut—and the scent of old books and the citrus oils of furniture polish.
It has been a long time since they shared fears. Hers began with the typical fear of early childhood, and then, by the time she reached adolescence, her fear outweighed his, outweighed that of most people she knew. He could never understand it; he’d been laughing at what scared her since she was a teenager, until she stopped telling him about her fears. Once, when they were on another trip like this—this time delivering a nineteenth-century inkwell to Connecticut—she’d had a sudden attack of terror for no reason she could explain. She was seventeen, and she was so overwhelmed by this terror that she’d cried, and for a moment, forgetting that she was far too old for it, she’d grabbed her father’s hand, and for a while he held her hand back, until, remembering themselves, they’d both let go.
Just last night, she had a dream in which he’d died, and she woke up with a start, her heart racing and her pillow soaked with sweat and tears.
She wants now to reach out and take one of his hands from the wheel—always meticulously at ten and two—and hold it, feel his dry palm, his arthritic knuckles, the pulse at the base of his thumb. Instead, she convinces him to stop for food. He takes them to a rest stop off the interstate with a McDonald’s. Her heart races as they wait in line to order, and she quietly tries to tame her breathing. He is here. Just like his dark, reassuring form in her bedroom door. He is right here.
She leaves him as he conducts his business inside the Montauk mansion. He will call her when it’s time to go. She wanders around to the back of the property, where the manicured grass rolls out into a copse of trees, through which she can see a distant scrap of the Block Island Sound.
She slips a cigarette and lighter from her purse, checking over her shoulder to ensure that she is out of sight. That she smokes is a secret that isn’t a secret. Her mother knows, but they agreed a long time ago that her father can never find out. But he must smell it on her; she is up to nearly a half pack a day, though she still insists that she only smokes socially.
She can feel it between them, that he’s agreed to this secret, assented to pretending not to know. It’s touching, though sometimes she has the urge to shout at him: I smoke cigarettes, even though you told me to never try them. Well, you were right. But you were wrong when you said that people look dumb when they smoke—it makes me feel like the most glamorous woman in the world.
Another open secret between them is that sometimes, when she thinks he’s had just one drink too many, she waits until he leaves his drink unattended, takes a large sip, and holds it in her mouth until she can get to the bathroom to spit it down the sink. He must know she does this. He always leaves his drink out for her, always pretends not to notice that there’s much less Dewar’s in his glass than there was before.
She blows smoke circles up at the cloudless sky. Or, she tries to. She’s never gotten the hang of them. The sun is punishing, and sweat gathers at her temples, plasters her tank top to her lower back. She hears him calling her name from the house. Quickly, she buries her cigarette in a bit of mulch piled up around a cluster of petunias wilting in the heat. Her father doesn’t call her name again. Nor does he come around to the back of the house to check on what’s keeping her.
As she straightens, sudden fear pierces her like an arrow. She is afraid now of her father’s silence, of his single call to her. After he said her name, maybe he fell over and is staring up at the glaring blue sky with eyes that no longer contain what she knows of him.
The dream, the dream.
She once dreamt that seawater was filling her Village apartment, and the next day, the ceiling in the living room began dripping.
She hurries her steps, her vision tunneling so that all she can see is the corner of the house that she must turn to find her father. As she rushes around to the front of the
house, she is both sure that she will find him standing, hands on hips, waiting for her with his signature wry smile, and that she will find him sprawled in the brick driveway, heart and lungs still, and above him, the groaning blue sky.
Her father convinces her that they should stop at the ocean before going home. He can swim, but she can’t. She has no excuse for this. Both of her parents love the ocean. She remembers them trying to teach her: every time they moved their hands out from under her belly, terror would weigh her down and she’d sink.
She considers protesting—they have no swim suits. But her father is in a playful, irreverent mood, fresh off a lucrative sale, and she doesn’t want to spoil it. When he is like this, he reminds her of the father from her childhood, the young, jovial man whom she sometimes still sees in his face. He tells her about his childhood trips out to Long Beach, to Coney Island, how he learned to swim by simply wandering out into the waves and doing it.
Because of the heat, the beach is crowded. No one pays them much attention, even though they are without towels or beach chairs or cooler or umbrella. Even though they are sweating in street clothes.
Her father insists that they get close to the water, and she reluctantly follows his lead. The waves are clamoring, boisterous. As she watches them tumble over themselves onto land, she imagines a great wall of ocean water rising up, blocking out the sun, blocking out the cloudless sky with a darker, meaner blue.
Her father strips off his shirt, starts toward the waves. She imagines the ocean reaching out for him with dripping, briny arms, pulling him out and then pushing him under. Reluctantly, she follows. She stands close enough that the waves thin and die out around her ankles as her father, laughing, charges in chest deep.
She has a vague memory of her parents taking her to Long Beach when she was a toddler. Her mother held her just at the water’s edge—any closer and she’d begin to scream. Her father was farther out, swimming. He turned and smiled—it’s all right, see?
He is smiling now, holding out his arms to her. She shakes her head, indicates her tank top and shorts with a hand. Faintly, she is irritated. He knows she can’t swim. A wave comes and he dives into it head first, smooth and confident as a sea otter.
Again, he turns to her, smiles, holds out his arms. She shakes her head. He calls her name—it’s not deep. She ventures in calf deep to appease him. It doesn’t. He wades up to her, grabs her elbow, and gently, patient as ever, pulls her out.
She protests, but halfheartedly. If it is in his power, he won’t let her die. The Atlantic water is cold, though she quickly becomes used to it. Her shorts begin to sag heavily on her hips, her tank top clings unflatteringly to her belly. He guides her out until they are chest deep. She sees a wave rise up like the head of a great beast, and then travel toward them. She tries to wrangle her breath into a calm rhythm.
As the wave gets near enough to suck at the water around them, her father suddenly sweeps her up in his arms—the water takes her weight away—and jumps, laughing, floating up in the apex of the wave. She laughs too, wondering at how easily he can still pick her up, how instinctively she hooks her arms around his neck.
Another wave comes, and again he jumps. Together, they are buoyed up in brine, aloft. The waves rise up and hurtle toward them, and each time he laughs at them, propels them up at just the right moment. This close to his face, his chest, she can hear that he is panting, he has exerted himself. He doesn’t have enough breath for laughing now. But still, he is grinning, saltwater dripping from his moustache, his eyes full of light and ocean.