Absence of Light
I remember the first time I met my father. Truly met him and saw him as a human being of flesh and soul. It was in the back of a shadowy bar, where the air tinged with cigarettes and I always kept my mouth shut as tight and as long as possible. He played guitar, or maybe he sang the blues. He kissed my mother on the outside of her lips while she wore mostly black clothes with knee high boots, put streaks of color in her hair. Said he had a show somewhere down the road, said see ya later Huckleberry even though I was a girl and my name was Finn.
That’s what I told them anyways, when the other kids would whisper until one would come up to me, brave enough to ask about who he was, or who I was for that matter. I was the only kid I had ever met who had parents who weren't together and happy, and by together and happy I knew what it really meant, that they were waiting for their kids to get older.
The only truth to the story was the shadows. The way my father snuck in and out of them. Tiptoeing across the lines, never falling fully into view. The way he would call me moments before a performance and tell me he wasn't going to make it. How seconds before the game winning shot, he would sneak away into the cold evening air. And if I didn’t hear from him, or didn’t see him, I was never really sure if he was there, lurking.
My mother and I lived together in a ranch style home in the middle of a valley in what felt like the center of the universe. Each year, we painted it a new color, letting it grow and take up space in the world the way my mother taught me to do so. She showed me how to ride a bike with no training wheels, and how to fight with my teeth. She taught me how to right the wrongs that had been done to me by making my life one full of peace. My father lived almost exactly 14 minutes away from us, if you hit the stoplight just right. My mother and I knew that 14 minutes was truly a lifetime. He sat on the front porch whenever we pulled up, beneath the shade of an old rotten pine tree, nearly blood red from bark beetles. If he wasn’t there my mother never said much, just turned the car around and drove 14 minutes back home. When he was there, I’d spend the weekend with him. I never protested but my mother knew I didn’t like to go, just an obligation that life gave me as a young girl. It was then that I’d pretend his bottle was the guitar, or sometimes even my mother, that he’d wrap his lips around and fall wholeheartedly into.
In the year of the blue house we finally painted the trim too. It had always been white, but that year my mother said we’d make it black. Have it pop. I thought that it looked ominous, a storm cloud in the midst of a bright sky. The next weekend my mother dropped me off at my fathers. She wore dark wash overalls, tied her curly blonde hair up in a sunset orange handkerchief. Told me to wait in the car for a few and spoke with my father on the porch. I always stared long at them, trying to read their lips, find out what they were trying to say. My mother never told on me to my father, didn’t whisper secrets of the things I’d done, she let me be and disliked seeing me go.
That weekend he taught me how to fish with one hand. I was young still, and had small hands that barely fit around a glass. The fishing pole was heavy and ached my grip, but I did what I was told, never wanting to make a fuss. He said that any good fisherman could do with one hand what a bad fisherman could do with two. I soaked this in, knowledge my father had imparted on me. Then, I saw him grab a bottle of beer with his free hand, and pull it down soft and smooth in one big gulp.
Two weeks later I was back at my fathers place. He waited on the porch fast asleep, the sun barely grazing the lower half of his legs. He awoke to the sound of us pulling up and tucked into himself, pulled his legs away from the light, yawned with annoyance. Later that evening a woman arrived at my fathers house. Let herself in without knocking, said her name was MaryBelle, that I could call her Bells, but every time my father said her name he called her something different.
She was the most beautiful woman I had ever seen, after my mother. She liked to braid my long light hair all the way down my back. My father waited on the porch more often, Bells by his side. A few months passed, and Bells was there every day and night. We went to a party down the street from my fathers house. Bells drove us in my dad's old red car. I played with the other kids until later in the evening. I saw my father and Bells dancing in the flickering light of the fire. Slurring the I love you’s. I watched them out of the corner of my eye for the rest of the night, behind the heat. I began to doze off later in a lawn chair, someone placed a blanket over me, to stop the knocking of my knees with each gust of wind that came through. I sat up, quickly, to the slamming of a screen door. I knew well enough to know it was time for me to go. Fumbling for my tennis shoes, I scraped my thumb on the cold concrete floor watching the blood drip from my knuckle and stain the drive. Bells stumbled up to me, keys in hand. I had no idea what time it was, wiping sleep from my eyes and blood onto my old dirty jeans.
“Lessss go” she slurred out of her pink, almost purple lip gloss. I tensed deep inside my body, a place I’d never felt before. I fumbled with my shoes a bit longer, letting the blood run down my knuckle onto different rocks. I looked past her, into the darkness of night, waiting for a figure to emerge and save me from this situation in which I had nothing, no one.
“Lets. Go.” She repeated as she slammed the driver's door. I waited one second longer, but he never came.
My mother warned me of cars and drinking. I climbed into the backseat and pulled the seat belt until it locked tight against my chest. It rubbed raw against my neck, but I didn’t care. Bells laughed, covering her mouth.
“You can hop up front ‘cha know. You’re not some lil kid.” I just shrugged, and so did she. We drove away, leaving my father behind in the dark. The whole drive I clenched my fist, dug my nail deeper into the fresh wound of my knuckle. Closed my eyes, and wished for a pen. I wanted to write my mothers phone number on the back of my hand. Counting the times we left the road, sent dirt flying up into the sky, I thought about who my mom would be without me, sick that I was in this situation she would never put me in. Afraid, I didn't want the darkness to consume her too.
In mere moments of sheer terror, we pulled into my fathers drive. I slipped frantically climbing out of the car, smacking my knees off the gravel. I ran inside, straight into my bed. I pulled my jeans off underneath the covers and pretended to fall asleep. I listened, intently, determined not to get back into the car. I heard the phone ring, pulled the covers tight against my face and clenched my eyes shut. My shallow breathing hidden beneath the covers, I listened to Bells creep outside my door, whisper that she would be right back, and heard the front door behind her. The lights from the car shone brightly through my bedroom window. Gravel flew and covered the house in rock confetti as she sped out and drove away. I was tense to move, and stared off until finally, I drifted off to sleep.
The next morning I awoke to my father alone. He clenched his hair of the dog, eyes red, staring blankly at the TV. I packed my bag, quietly. Glanced outside my window at the drive, praying I’d see my mothers car pulling in. Instead, I gasped a little too loudly. My dad's old red car sat there, mangled. The front end smashed in, headlights broken out, a shell of what it was merely yesterday. Covering my mouth, I listened for his yells, a scream, anything. Nothing came, I saw my mother pull up and I ran out the door, yelling goodbye. He never pulled his hollow eyes from the screen. I never saw MaryBelle again. I came close to asking, on days when my father hadn't started drinking yet, but I knew if I said her name he would immediately reach for the fridge. My hands shook when I thought of her, and I knew my voice would crack if I ever tried to say her name.
Years later, I saw a woman who looked like her, selling cars in the mall parking lot. She laughed louder than she used to. Pressed her chest against the windshield as a man sat inside. Smiled like she wasn't missing some of her teeth. She counted the money a man handed her, used it to fan herself in the summer sun. Pretended to sweat. I thought about saying hello, what she would say to me. If it even was MaryBelle, or a shadow of the woman she used to be.
In the year of the yellow house with the bubblegum pink trim , my mother drove me to my fathers house early in the fall. When we got there, a for sale sign sat in the yard, SOLD plastered across in sharp red letters. My dad stood outside in old gray shorts, a smile wider than I’d ever seen. The sun showed the papery white of his skin and I saw him as old for the first time in my life. He had always been tall and slender, but now he looked near frail. His deep brown eyes had faded, and his stubble looked choppy and sparse. He leaned to the left as he carried a box across the drive.
“On no no, can’t take the kid,” he said as he gestured vaguely around at nothing. My mother hadn't even gotten out of the car yet. She jumped out as the wind blew and her curls covered her face. I watched her hair bow and bend in all directions. Mother nature loved my mothers hair as much as I did. She shoved a finger deep into his chest, climbed back into the Jeep, and backed out of the drive.
After a few silent moments I asked, “Where is he going?”
“Not sure,” she said, but I could tell that she was really thinking. She had her nose scrunched up, and sucked her cheeks tight into her teeth.
I waited even longer this time, and whispered “Am I ever going to see him again?”
Her response was quick, almost cutting me off mid question “I’m not sure, but I really hope so.” She made eye contact through the rear view mirror.
“Me too.” I said, nodding, and we both knew, the way a mother and a daughter know, that the other wasn't telling the whole truth.
My father called 7 times after that over a few years. I knew because I kept a tally on the board. It sat next to the days of school I’d missed that year, or the number of dollars my mother owed me for winning a bet. I never truly saw him again. There had been inklings, though. I’d find myself alone glancing down a dark alleyway. Or in a room full of people, looking at the spaces between. Staring off behind, into the shadows. Waiting, patiently for someone, something, that would never emerge.
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