What He Is, Is Dead

O, Papa, how I wish you were here to kiss my cheek and call me Kitten.

Dead, dead, dead is what I think now when I think, “Father.” My father’s dead. My father’s underground. More than a decade, my father’s moldered. His big belly’s deflated. His big belly’s dust and rubble. His big head’s chewed down to bone. His bridgework’s loose. I suppose that the gold on the teeth my husband fixed for him still glitters. I feel sure that the dark suit he wore to lawyer in is lint and the pockets empty and buttons dropped off. Every year he has more room in his coffin. He could toss if he wanted to. He could turn. I am not supposed to think these thoughts. I am not supposed to think, as I did just now, that my father’s flesh long ago ceased to rot. Even beetles have finished the dinner of him and the skeins of ants are long gone. I am supposed to think elevating thoughts.

At the very least I am supposed to think that flecks of who he was showed up in the soybeans that grow near his house and that those soybeans fatted an Iowa hog and that hog gave her pork chop to a hungry truck driver in Bakersfield who does not guess that his chop’s succulence carries my father’s smidgen of Cherokee blood, his tendency to run to fat and sorrow, his equal fondness for English gardening magazines and S&M pornography.

More conventionally, I am supposed to think that my father’s come back in his grandson, that he donated genes for the 180 IQ points that let Nick be quick at math. I am supposed to think that he taught me always, every year, no matter what, to plant blue flowers, and that in turn I taught my daughters. I am to remember him when I brush against tall blue delphinium spikes. I am to remember him when wind shakes blue petals loose. I do.

I say to myself, out of all hearing, Dead dead dead is what he is. What he is, is dead. Even his last Scottie dog is dead, as are all his orange squalling fat tortoise cats. My father’s lost to me. I am lost to him. All is lost to him. All. I never address him. I never look up at the sky or down at the dirt or at my small hand which is so like his — stubby and short-fingered and grubby with ink — and say, O, Papa, how I wish you were here to see this and hear this and smell this and lean over from your vast height and kiss my cheek and call me Kitten. He is not here. He can do nothing. He does not comb his hand idly through his grandson’s dark hair and tell him that his great-great grandfather was nicknamed Oatmeal, for the basin of oatmeal he ate each morning and swilled down with sour mash whiskey. He does not even know he has a grandson. He is not here to learn that Rebecca moved to south Florida and just last weekend reeled in an iridescent fish half as long as she is tall or that Nick’s mother Sarah not only got her degree but she also finally learned to parallel park. He is not here to mail off the family photographs to. Listen, please. Understand. I can say no more than this. My father, alas, can say nothing. His ear isn’t warm against a phone. Someone else has his number.

This article is part of the Father's Day issue. To read additional articles from this issue, click here.

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