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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.
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Lovely read:) thank you for sharing!