I can still feel the prickle of the kerosene heater we dragged from room to room in the winter, the soft yield of snow muffling the sounds of footsteps, and the creak of opening doors. Knit gloves, fuzzy and pink, pilled with too many runs through the laundry. The smell of potatoes with butter and salt, squash boiled slick and sloppy, and the thick smell of bacon that seemed to smother the house on Sunday mornings. Mother, worrying the pork with a spatula as it popped and crackled, was already dressed for her job as the organist at Grace Lutheran.
Last night she waited, open magazine on her lap. This was how we spent most evenings together in our little rented two-bedroom house. While I watched belligerent advertisements and cartoons, she would sit, glancing at the clock while never turning a page, hours stuck on the same article about new hairstyles or murderers loosed in far away cities. My father's absence was like tennis shoes on the floor, our splintering secondhand furniture, cartons of school milk: normal, everyday.
It was my birthday, a Sunday, when he stumbled in bleary-eyed while I was sitting at the baby blue Formica table eating cereal. Our eyes met as he came through the back door. Mother stood at the kitchen counter wearing a simple cotton dress. She held his suit out far from her body like she might hold a dead animal, pinched between thumb and forefinger. She flung it at him.
"Put it on," she said.
He looked down at the suit like it was some joke tailored at his expense.
"What for?" he asked. His voice was hoarse and his breath stank like a heady mix of cigarette butts swimming in beer cans.
"It's time for church," she said. "It's time you went to church, time we all went together." She walked away. He sighed, knowing he'd lost. I finished breakfast with a cartoon king on the cereal box and cleaned my own bowl.
We weren't religious, but we went to Grace Lutheran. Mother decided it would be less trouble, and look good, if we went to where she worked to pray. We lived off of Wildcat Road, a twisty gravel road a few miles from town, so we climbed into my father's beloved Ford pickup. My only dress was a hand-me-down, a bouncy and too big yellow jumper that hung too low on my slight frame. With my black hair I looked like a bruised and limp banana. I picked at the white and pink embroidered flowers that ran up the side, and the soft tugs at the fabric were the only noises in the truck. Mother was in the passenger's seat and held her purse like a shield, eyes fixed on something unknown to me off in the distance. My father grimaced at the bright sunlight and occasionally clawed at his tie.
We pulled into the church parking lot. Widows, arm in arm, teetered into the building in shopworn Sunday dresses. Little boys played in the parking lot, giving chase in their neatly pressed tan pants and penny loafers. I felt like a fool in my secondhand clothes.
When he stepped out of the car, my father let out a long, deep belch so guttural that the playing children stopped cold and a few of the grannies turned around with puzzled faces. Mother pulled me into the building, walking stiffly, leaving him standing by the car, his fist pressed to his pursed lips and the other hand on his troubled belly. An old desiccated woman clutched Mother's elbow at the church doors.
"Margaret," she said with desperate heaving breaths. "It's so nice to see you in with the family. Honestly, you must be here every day!"
Mother supplemented our income as the part-time church secretary, but she belonged in politics. Her secret strength was of quiet and courteous control, even while her husband was probably throwing up in the bushes by the big wooden cross that faced the convenience store across the street: a smile, a little lie, and a firm handshake. Talking to this withered old spinster, my mother's lips widened, her teeth – she took great pride in her straight white smile – showed their pearly luminescence, and her sharp-cornered grin beamed.
"Thank you, Glenda," Mother said, squeezing the old woman's arm. "It's about time we brought everyone on board."
We sat at the front pew, the church air full of soft conversations between the older women, gruff mumbles between the men, children squealing and their parents shushing. Timothy Figg, the senior pastor of Lady of Grace, walked slowly to the simple wooden lectern. He was an albino; his hair was a dull white flaxen color, thin and combed over. The pastor burned easily and even in winter had a roasted pink tint reminiscent of potted meat. His vestments were simple: a purple stole that dragged the ground and the alb that trailed behind him like a bride's train. He was legally blind, but insisted on stumbling up the podium steps unassisted while scanning his notes, nose so close it smudged his index cards. I could hear his grumbles, words half-eaten and spat out.
Mother told me he memorized most of his sermons because of his terrible vision. His glasses distorted his eyes so much that the irises were vacant and wide, made owlish in appearance. My father walked with slumped shoulders down the aisle trying to find us when the pastor began.
"The fathers," Figg spat, "have eaten sour grapes." There were still people shuffling, finding their seats. Others had been talking, but Figg's abrupt start silenced them. Usually the service began with a welcome prayer or maybe a chorale, but never anything like this; nothing would have prepared us for this almost sinister delivery. Figg grabbed the edges of the lectern and savored the pause between.
He licked his chapped lips. "And the children's teeth are set on edge."
My father sat between us and did not move. The flush crept up from below his collar, but I could see my breath in the cold.
"What is this passage in Ezekiel telling us?" Figg continued, "What does it mean?"
Figg looked out at the congregation. I was certain he couldn't see us in the front, let alone those in the back. "Why are the actions of the fathers a reflection of the family?"
His words grew more fervent, increasing in volume. "Of the community? Of the church?"
He glared at my father. The whole room seemed to lean forward. My father stopped for breath in surprise, choking for a moment and coughing.
"Behold!" Figg shouted, "All souls are mine! As the soul of the father, so also the soul of the son is mine – the soul that sinneth, it shall die."
This was more like the Baptist preachers the kids at school talked about, the ones who would tremble and sway, sweating before the mighty word, than a mild-tempered Lutheran. Figg was engulfed in the full brunt of his Calvary, the fuming heat of the God-fire that lived deep inside his pink flesh had stayed dormant until now. He gushed and spat; the man acted possessed by a spirit I'd never seen, his face red and his white, limp hair falling to his bushy brows as he railed against grapes and forgiveness.
"The soul of the son is the soul of the father," he said, "the soul of the son is the soul of the home, if the soul is full of sin, it dies."
My father was still coughing, trying to smother it with his fist.
"Do we forgive them?" Figg demanded. My father began to gag.
The pastor compensated for the noise; he shouted across our heads, past us and into the world as if to lay down some challenge to all outside our walls, "We know they do know what they do."
Figg pounded on the lectern. My father doubled over, those in our pew looking down to see the commotion.
"The fire of doubt, the sin of secrets can burn, my friends," Figg sang, thundering majestic like the eagle, the lion, whatever we could muster as the fiercest animals known to us, "the fire of love can burn you, but God will protect you from the flame!"
And we all shook with his closing; the word blew past the church doors and into the empty and forgetful streets outside.
"There keeps a fire here," the pastor hollered across the pews. "This flame cannot be extinguished!"
The lectern shook and rocked, bucking against Figg's violence. My father righted himself as the hallelujahs rained down like hailstones. I'd never heard a murmur from the congregation before, but I turned around to see people standing and swaying. I wanted to see the look on their faces, what rapture looked like, but my father grabbed my arm hard and pulled me back to my seat. Blood trickled from the corner of his mouth.
My mother, usually reserved like the rest of the congregation, added a hesitant "Amen" to the cries. Figg kept his eyes on my father, now I knew he could see us. They bulged, and flop sweat showered all over his index cards. My father looked blankly into his hand at the tooth nestled in his palm, a sleeping incisor flecked in blood, oblivious to the sermon.
My mother, her face drained of color, fumbled in her purse for a handkerchief and blew her nose. My father extended his palm, as if offering it to me.
"Baby," he whispered. I wasn't quite sure if he was referring to me or the tooth.
The shame radiated off of me like heat from a desert highway, distorting everything around me in its intensity. The people rose from their seats slowly, as if under some watchful eye. The curtains fell and my mother wept. The church grew silent and cold again, as the pastor hobbled off the podium.
Pearly snaps of his Western-style button-ups. His crow's feet that bloomed when he smiled. His index finger on his right hand, broken in high school and never set, couldn't straighten and bent to the left when he pointed. Pale legs and black socks. Barclay cigarettes. He said he had Indian blood in him. His beard was thin, the hairs sparse and lonely. He was thin and clothes hung loose. In a breeze they billowed around his slight frame. His blue suit, the one he wore to church, was polyester and had sheen, like subliminal gold threads woven through to give him an ostentatiousness that rubbed sore my mother's reserved and pragmatic nature.
Driving back, the only sound was the rain on the truck windshield. When we pulled in the driveway I climbed over them and ran outside. I turned around when I didn't hear their footsteps behind me.
"Go watch television," my mother said and closed the truck door. I watched the only channel we got on the rabbit ears while they talked, mouthing silent words and beating their fists on the dashboard behind the glass until the sun broke through the opaque afternoon clouds. As the afternoon wore on, my mother busied herself washing all of the clothes in the house and mailing the bills. When my father left for the night she made phone calls while I drew stick figures on the backs of old envelopes. He didn't come back until late, and that night everyone slept in different rooms.
It was Monday morning and I was putting on my shoes for school. He sat with me at the table. He ruffled my hair like a father would a son in a TV movie. I was slowly tying a double knot on each sneaker, training my eyes to the loops over the loops and wondering if that meant he wanted a boy all along.
"Daddy," I said. "Can we go see Gran soon?" She lived in West Virginia where she'd moved to marry another man after my grandfather died.
"Maybe," he said. "Easter's coming up."
He turned to the old upright freezer in the corner of the kitchen. Most mornings before he would leave, he'd take a key from his keychain, a long leather lanyard with tassels and a dozen keys. He'd flip through them; to me they all looked alike, brassy and dull, but it would only take him a few moments to find the right one, as if he had all the stamped numbers and saw teeth patterns memorized. The freezer had been there since I could remember. Sometime ago, some old farmer didn't trust his wife and fashioned it with a padlock. My father stood, counting the frozen inventory, until finally he chose a hunk of meat, something from prehistory coated thick with ice, a large gnarled mass of cheap beef my mother would have to stew and coax all day to be edible. In school we had talked about Mt. Fuji, the mountain in Japan covered with beautiful snow. My teacher, Mrs. Trivette, had been there, and she showed the class her vacation slideshow. We suffered through picture after picture of her in puffy ski jackets in front of wide flat water until finally she clicked on the wired remote control and the mountain, dusted white and softly peaking to heaven, came into view.
"This is a holy place to them," she said, as if she couldn't bring herself to say the word Japanese. The frozen meat had a distinct geological similarity but lacked the majesty, the grandeur of the picture on the screen. We listened to the drizzle outside. I finished lacing my shoes.
He got up and started making coffee. "It's fine."
"What happened?" I asked. "Why'd it –"
He came over to my chair and leaned in close. His breath was minty and his eyes were rheumy like my granny's pug dog. "Now," he said, "I'm off to Gatlinburg for a few days. You be good for your momma and I'll bring you back something nice."
His tongue danced in the negative space where his tooth used to be. It flicked like a snake's.
"Something for my birthday?"
His voice caught for a second. "That's right," he said, stroking my hair again. "Thought I forgot, didn't you?"
My eyes went back to the knots on my shoes, grinning and speculating wildly what treasures Gatlinburg held that my father could fit in his old cab pickup. He finished his coffee and kissed my head before he left.
Mother went to the living room and watched him drive away. A few minutes later she came into the kitchen, huge trash bags in both hands.
"No school today," she said. She ran outside and pulled a tarp off the old Dodge Dart my father kept under a plywood lean-to supported by two-by-fours. We packed it up with all our clothes and my toys and books. The rain soaked my clothes and her hair was slicked back and wet. She didn't say much of anything while we worked; just half words under her breath, little curses I'm sure were directed at him. Hours went by until the car was full. The house was bare except for the big furniture – all of our pictures and dishes, our shoes and old albums were piled high in the backseat.
She surveyed the kitchen with the last bag in hand, a plastic grocery sack full of underpants. I watched her from the doorway, exhausted and afraid, holding a folded stack of bulky sweaters and little girl jumpers. She paused, scanning the bare kitchen for anything she'd missed, until her eyes stopped on the old off-white freezer. I wasn't sure what she was doing as she stood, clenching her fists and relaxing them again. I was mesmerized by the veins on the backs of her hands: They were ropey and spastic, like angry snakes under silk sheets. She grabbed it and pulled, but the freezer was too heavy and wouldn't budge. I dropped the clothes and helped her until it slowly began to creak across the floor, gouging deep grooves into the cheap linoleum. We only managed to move it a foot.
"Mama," I huffed, sitting on the floor exhausted. She sank down with me and looked me in the eye for the first time that day. She brushed my hair from my face.
"Granny always said you had Granddaddy's colors," she said. My grandfather was a black Irish, white skin, black hair and red cheeks. She smiled, and I saw the deep gray circles that hung under her eyes.
She crawled behind the freezer, out of sight. I heard the plug pulled from the wall, the motor running down, a flat buzz fading and a sharp pop pop pop, like a playing card in a bicycle spoke, until the room was silent. She came back out with wisps of gray hair and dirt clinging to her knees and hands.
"I always thought you looked more like your father," she said, straightening up her shoulders. She took my hand, threw the dust off her clothes and closed the door, the beef still thawing on the kitchen counter.
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