A palm reader told Nikki that you were caught in Limbo. I listened to her guilty cry from the other end of the line and imagined you in a hazy purple space where only your eyes existed—looking away, stirring with something. I imagined you in this blank, vast nothingness without form, waiting.
The night you fell and died on the floor of a bar, I was dancing in another city—wasted. You used to pull us behind the tractor—us three bouncing in the wagon around and around the old farmhouse. Grandpa sat at the kitchen window drinking Old Style, staring at the humming birds. You breathed beer in our faces as you put band aids on our scrapes or shushed us until we forgot our hurts. I searched for treasures in the dirt driveway—round beer tabs, pennies—beneath the pink blossoms that fell like snow from the apple trees. You climbed one of them and roped a swing around one of the branches as we stood below, catching the petals on our eyelids. I sat on your long lap of faded denim while you let me steer the old mower. I held onto the skinny wheel, arms spanning its perimeter.
On the weekends that you had us, we’d wake you up on Sundays, jumping on your bed. You were fresh smiles and morning kisses, reaching for us and laughing. An itchy, beige blanket divided the one room we shared on the second floor of the farmhouse; it glowed in the sun that filtered through the yellow shade. You were the kind of dad that waited until we were in the tub, covered in bubbles, before you came in to wash our hair. I brought you a cassette tape of me singing Patsy Cline—I was five and knew all of her songs by heart. You said you loved it and played it every time we came. You took us out on a country ride in the brown boat of a car. Nikki and I sat up front, Jodie sat in the back. You held a beer and my door swung open when we drove through a pothole that made my feet hit the dash. Gravel and green blurred by; Nikki held onto me and John Denver sang. At dusk we’d walk through the fields where the broken barn fades and we’d weave around the hay bales high as mountains, taking turns holding your hands. These were the years that sopped and soaked into your memory. These were the girls you knew us by—toddlers clinging to your knees.
You became persistent and sidetracked when, a short time later, we got a new last name. You were being replaced. We stopped calling you daddy. We trailed behind you in the garden giggling your name “John, John, Daddy John”. It was the only time we saw you mad and we giggled even harder. Then we started seeing you every other weekend. Then it was once a month. Then maybe Easter. They told us you were “slow” and “simple”. We didn’t know what that meant; we knew you were like one of us, and you quietly did whatever we would say. We knew you loved us. You showed up crying and pleading after a few months had gone by, begging to take us for the next weekend. They gave you another try, and we waited in our pretty dresses by the front window. Mom watched us as the time slipped away “Goddamn him” and we went upstairs to change. We were told what was wrong with you, “He’s…an alcoholic.” “He’s…mentally slower than…” “He’s…stuck.” I had wished you would’ve understood what was wrong with me. I wanted to crawl in your lap and tell you our new dad was the monster under my bed. I’d imagine what you’d do—the look that might’ve flashed through your big blue eyes, the fall of your sheepish posture, broad shoulders sinking—you with your helpless hands, embarrassed; passive hands, scared, your brain slowly mushing into a sponge. I learned you could never save me. You slinked away to the bars for good, every day, at ten a.m..
At fourteen I sought out your apartment on one lousy Sunday. I knew you had been living out of your car but then moved in with your brother. You didn’t know my face when you opened the door. “You looking for Francis?” you asked politely. Well it had been seven or eight years. Frightened and nervous after I said my name, you offered me a quick seat at the little kitchen table. I stared at its gray, marbled top and at the laundry and boxes and rotten food strewn about. You caught hell though I didn’t really want to give it to you. I had mixed up all your intentions and put them under my bed.
Weeks later, I broke into your house in a fever. I dashed up the stairs and found your bedroom where I rummaged through your things, not caring to put anything back. I was disappointed to see you hadn’t thrown our things away. Our pictures covered the cracked walls and the letters we’d sent you over the years lay in neat piles around a bare mattress. You still had the cassette tape of me. Auntie Carol later told me you played it all the time—in those lost years. I knew that smell of you—I still do. If filled the dank, yellow house with the lonely hallways. I wanted you to come rushing for me. You would’ve repeated things you’d heard like “there’s no such thing as monsters” and I would’ve persisted like a child that there was. You’d be drunk. You’d never fill that void. I wanted to cry for you when I stole out the front door.
We were in our twenties when we looked over at you in the funeral home. Your lashes were long and waxen. Your eyes bulged beneath their lids. Your large hands with the bitten finger nails were gray. Random thoughts shot through my mind in that cold room where they released all of the alcohol from you. As your children, we were to go through your house and choose what we wanted. They gave us your address and it took us to a different side of town, near the lake. This place was hollow and empty aside from the trash. No food, no laundry basket, no towels. Old Style sat warm in the refrigerator. The same clothes you wore when we were little still hung in the closet, reeking of you. I kept a shirt. An old, beige blanket was nailed up over the window. Letters were found here and there in the laundry and newspapers across the floor. I searched for treasures—keepsakes. Beer tabs and pennies.
You called me Salt because of my white-blond hair. Nikki was Pepper. Jodie was Paprika. “I love yous’, I love yous girls” you used to always say. You never tried to teach me to be tough—you always let me cry until I was better. So alone, so alone, and did you realize that in the end? Did you feel it in those short hours before you were drunk again? Did your brain sop all that away? The bartenders said you carried pictures of us three in your wallet and showed us to them every day, bragging about where we worked and how we were doing. Somehow you kept up on us. Nikki can’t stop holding your shirts. She shouldn’t have paid the five bucks to the gypsy.