Spring 2024


By Bryan D. Price

There was a fire next door. The neighbors sat around it and I could just hear them through the kitchen window. A woman and a man or perhaps two women and one man or two men and a woman. Some combination intimated by the pitch and depth of voices getting more and more excited as the night grows longer and colder. It was 3:22 and then 3:59. Had I slept. Hard to tell. Had I dreamt. My eyes would open and then close. A restless mind produces a restless body. I knew when I was to wake, or fully rise, the baby’d be gone. I laid in bed thinking about it. Would she have encountered the people around the fire as she left in the middle of the night. Would they have conspired with her to spirit them both away. And yet I laid there perfectly still, refusing to confirm my suspicions. Stillness, my mother told me, reminded her of death. Get up, she’d say, go do something. But I preferred to not do anything. I wanted to just sit there staring, trying to imagine what the world would be like without me in it. Not as if I wanted to remove myself, but see it from its ultimate vantage, as a god might. 

The woman who cared for the baby did not believe I was in my right mind. She didn’t trust me to do things the way they ought to be done. She did not want to leave the baby in my care after it was time for her to leave. All of this was, more or less, intimated by her face. I’m an avid reader of faces—eyes, eyelids, lips, creases, turns, dips, openings and closings. Very observant of how people react to my presence. For instance, she didn’t like how sad I got when I listened to certain kinds of music like “Waltz for Debby” or the Paul songs on the White Album. She sensed weakness in it, a lack of nerve. The corners of her mouth would turn downward and her eyes fluttered in a look that I knew to be disgust. I wanted to say that nostalgia is a vortex that swallows us whole sometimes, but I don’t think she approved of that certain tier of emotion. She didn’t think I was capable of fatherhood. Some men aren’t. Too tied down inside or tied to something invisible. She sensed I might drag the baby, or the person she was to become, into the abyss with me. She was terse and enigmatic but knew all those tricks about how nature worked. At first she tried to foster or cultivate what should have been a natural bond, but it didn’t take. Once she saw this, she must’ve known there was only one thing left for her to do. 

I never quite knew what to think about the baby, whose name came to be, after some back and forth, Danielle. I didn’t care for it, the name. But my opinion didn’t matter for much. My father didn’t want me either. That was something I understood from the beginning. It’s one of those things one shouldn’t know. It poisons the well. What I didn’t want for the baby was what I had—a whole stream of strange men going through her life. It’s not healthy. I wanted to be the constant. My mother lost two before me. It wasn’t something one talked about unless someone wanted to get mean about things. It pretty much went that way with me and her—Danielle’s mother. Her parents were Catholic (and I suppose she was too) so I make the sign of the cross every time I think of her passing or relate it to a stranger. Sometimes I don’t know if I’m making a joke of it or being dead serious. If there was ever real love there, it dried up when the baby came. The more I think about it though the more I think there wasn’t ever any real or true love. Maybe just a shared desire to be less lonely.

When I finally got up to confirm my suspicions the room was about as clean as a room could be. The bed neatly made with tight corners. I stood there trying to think if anything had been up on the walls before, which now were absolutely bare. There had been a blanket on the chest of drawers for laying the baby down to be changed. I opened the drawers and stared at the western style images that were papered inside. It had been mine as a child and Danielle’s mother tried scraping the paper away, but the glue or whatever adhesive had been used was too difficult to remove. The room didn’t even retain the smell of the baby or whatever talc the woman used. I looked under the bed and there was nothing there. Not even a hair or crumb of dust. 

I imagine she’d been gone for at least a few hours. I wouldn’t catch up to her until she got to wherever she was going to. And then there’d be a confrontation. The clock on the wall said 6:47. I went to the refrigerator and gawked at everything inside. She had made a coffee cake a few days before. Half of it sat there in a sheet pan that had gone black over the years. I took it to the kitchen table and ate it cold right off the pan. All of it. I wouldn’t usually eat like this but I felt like a great tragedy had befallen me and I should be allowed some kind of license or liberty to be greedy. It tasted good cold. I looked at the coffee maker and then just had a cigarette, thinking about what to do next. I thought about calling the police, but you can’t unwind things at that point. You get police involved and it becomes a whole bureaucratic quagmire, maybe stretching into my old age and, perhaps, beyond. People just reach for the phone and they don’t know what kind of can of worms they’re about to open. Not just police but lawyers and other agents of the state. Layers upon layers of strangers who have no connection to me or to the baby or to the woman. It becomes no longer private and private life is sacred. 

I need to think, come to some conclusion about things. There are avenues of thought one forces upon themselves. These are not circuitous or rigid with firm enclosures, but labyrinthine, opening up onto infinite space. Infinite space tires out the soul. The soul, put into a bind, will eventually relent. In times such as these I have come to realize that pain tends to clarify things. Physical pain. I do certain things to myself. Little acts designed to focus my thinking. I do them because I deserve to do them or rather, they deserve to be done to me. Such punishments have to be self-administered. The imagination opens up at this point to a whole plane of reflectivity where thinking becomes crucial to survival. I pace at first, my mind drawn to the pain, which is subtle. More like pressure than pain at first but pressure builds, never explodes but reminds me that everything is interconnected. Each decision, each misstep, each wrong demands redress or correction. It’s not even nine in the morning. I think how I could be on the highway now. I could be doing ninety, a hundred, chasing after them. I could be a man possessed. A passionate man. A wronged man. I imagine a long empty stretch of road and in the rearview mirror, way back in the distance are two headlights, blazing white even though it’s full sun. The sky is dead blue and the mountains are yellow. They are gaining on me so I accelerate. I know we are attached somehow, me and whoever’s behind those headlights. They are not there by accident and I no longer feel like the pursuer. It is as if I’ve been drawn into some kind of cosmic trap. I can only focus on the car behind me, forgetting about the baby, forgetting about myself as a father with duties and obligations. I can only think about being the victim of some kind of deep, complicated treachery, the machinations of which I will never understand. 

The pain (or pressure) begins to rise into my lower back. I look out the window, this sky, not the sky of my dreams or nightmares, but the real sky is gray, flecked here and there with white. It’s 10:22. If the woman left at two, three in the morning she’d be to Phoenix by now. I imagined the baby growing into a girl, beginning to walk upright and becoming a fully formed human with thoughts and feelings and desires and memories. Who would raise her—the woman perhaps. Or her family—her people, her kin. What were they like, I wondered. What church did they belong to, how did they eat, and talk to one another. Was it a tightly knit clan. Or loose and fractured, everyone isolated, like mine. Would she be forced down roads she didn’t want to wander. Would she look into the mirror and see herself or another person, a mutilated person, a person with a secret life that cannot be shared. Would we run into each other one day unbeknownst to her that we are father and daughter. I would know though, would sense it from afar like a scent from the past that stops you in your tracks. Would I say something cryptic like, you know, we emerged from the same shell, me and you. And then just walk off into the distance. The pain crept into my stomach. It felt like a balloon slowly filling with air. I would have passed this odd behavior on to her or this odd behavior would have manifested itself in strange kinds of fathering. It is hard to recover from certain types of bad or weird fathering. Like everything else, there had to be a bright side though, a way of making peace with the inevitable. In the end, all absences become ghosts. Perhaps every night that I sleep in the room where she slept I will dream of her. See my daughter with fifty or a thousand faces. Every woman in my dreams my daughter coming to tell me all the directions she has gone.   

Bryan D. Price is the author of A Plea for Secular Gods: Elegies (What Books, 2023). His stories and poems have appeared or are forthcoming in Santa Monica Review, Diagram, American Chordata, Boulevard, JMWW, Rhino Poetry, and elsewhere. He lives in San Diego, California.

Spring 2024