All I knew of Daddy was his dying. My part in the story had been to go along for the ride. “I pushed you in the stroller,” Mother told me, “and when I came home from the grocery store, he was dead.”
I was seven now and the stroller story wasn’t large enough to hold an entire father. I knew other children with breathing fathers, fathers who came home after work and attended second grade pageants. Every new friend would ask. Or her mother would ask. “What happened to your dad?”
“He-died-when-I-was-a-baby.” I’d say it in a hurry, hoping to shorten the silences that always followed. There would be a frown and a drawn, hushed response: “Oh, I am so sorry.”
Theodore, however, was four when Daddy died. He was allotted memories.
I watched Theodore in the kitchen. He opened the freezer, empty but for a box of broccoli, an ice cube tray, and a single can of grape juice. A thick ceiling of snow sheltered all. “Just tell me what you remember,” I said. “Anything at all.”
With both hands, he squeezed the grape juice can to soften it. “Add three cans cold water,” he read. He pried off the lid with a spoon handle.
“One time,” he said, “I had this bottle of soda.” Into the pitcher he flung the frozen concentrate. The jellied ice slid down the pitcher’s side.
“I couldn’t open the soda.” Slowly he filled the grape juice can with water at the faucet. He poured.
“We had this white car,” he said, returning the empty can to the sink. He held it under the faucet’s lazy glug.
“We had a car?” This was revelatory. Our family didn’t have a lot of things that other families had.
“Our dad went to the fender and snapped the bottle cap off.”
He plunged in a spoon and began stirring. Around the perimeter, lilac liquid sloshed. In the center a dark cyclone swirled, purple like a scream.
I wandered into Mother’s soft, rumpled room with its unmade bed and the sweet smell of cocoa butter. She came in hugging a white laundry basket, blowing a sigh. The plastic mesh spread across her face like a cage. Setting down the basket, she pulled low the window shade and dropped onto the bed beside me. Her gray wool sweater clotted in lumps above her ivory dress.
She touched my nose. “Your scar is showing today.”
“I’m used to it.”
“Those steep stairs. You were so little.” She patted the scar. “I should have put more cocoa butter on it.”
It was the story I didn’t want to hear, the annoying hopelessness of a woman who couldn’t protect her child. Who had watched helplessly while a hurried little girl tumbled headlong down concrete steps. There was nothing to be done about that now.
“Just forget it!” I pulled away from her touch, bounced the bed and upended the laundry basket. Towels and turtlenecks spilled atop Mother’s wrinkled sheets. There was a red sock, a green T-shirt and a big white sail of underwear, all warm.
Mother picked up her underwear and opened the dresser.
“Do you remember much about Daddy?” I asked.
“No.” She closed the dresser. “Yes. My memory isn’t too good, because of the shock treatments.”
“You went to the store . . . .” I began.
“Your Daddy wanted more drink. I put you in the stroller, took Theodore. When I came home from the store your Daddy was dead. The doctor came and said, yes, he was dead.” It was the same story, with perhaps more drink in it, and a doctor, too. But the dead was as dead as it ever was.
After Mother left, I lay in the warm laundry and let the clean of it tickle my face. On her dresser, next to her pillbox, stood the picture of Daddy. Striped shirt, hairy arms and a squint. Mother said one should never squint or scowl: it would cause wrinkles. Daddy didn’t live long enough for wrinkles.
His face was brown, and his arms. He sat cross-legged on the grass, thin trousered knees pointing to the sky, a cigarette in his long fingers. Beside him Mother held a fat, white baby, too young for scars.
He looked at the baby with a squint and a smile. The baby scowled in another direction. He wasn’t going to stick around and that baby knew it. She wasn’t going to smile, or even look.
Stories of his drinking slowly joined the stroller story, a cartful of sad, rickety things on rusty wheels I would push around in circles for the rest of my life.
I didn’t ask again about his death, or anything more, for thirty years. I learned to miss the touch of Mother’s fingers, brushing my scar. One day, I picked up the old photograph, considering it over a bottle of soda. My only baby picture.
For the first time, I was ready to take in my father’s gaze, and to start looking back.
Christi Krug has authored seven resource books and dozens of articles for national magazines. Her stories and poetry have appeared in Insight, The Fossil, Vision, Zelos, The Rambler, Umbrella, and Qarrtsiluni. She can be found blogging at christikrug.blogspot.com. Website: christikrug.com.
© 2013, Christi Krug