By Kalie Johnson
There is a photo of my father, my brother, and I at the zoo shoved into a sleeve of my grandmother’s giant green photobook. She labeled it “Josh and the kids” in her sweet looping letters that rush into the next photograph of my uncle awkwardly wrapped around my aunt’s baby belly. “Josh and the kids” is a simple square photo of my father carrying two smiling children over his shoulders, faces blooming against the sunny zoo surrounding. There’s only one copy of that photo and it is there, tucked away in a heavy cedar drawer that does not open except for bad days or lazy days. When my brother does heroin, I hold the book in the dark and search for his faces. When I am home for the summer, when I can not sleep, when my father tells me he’s expecting another child, when my mother’s birthday comes and she does not, I sit with my family photos. No one else opens the drawer; grandma doesn’t make these books anymore. “Too busy, too much work,” she says, ripping the skin from tomatoes with a dull knife between her dirty fingers.
I guess it’s a bad day. I look at the photo and spiral. I used to sit upon the shoulders of my father, legs tapping his chest against the newly-acquired height, and I would try to hold the prickles of his hair in a loose security, only to let go for a second and reach for living branches in this quick realization that we are all just playing God. I would grab a passing branch and rip against life itself, knowing that I was as safe as I could be. Popsicles melting down bruised legs, peeling scabs, and the stubble of peach fuzz hair, my father would pretend to toss me off his shoulders, dumping me like the bed of a construction truck, but I never truly fell. Single dads hold on tight. He held his grip on sticky legs and laughed like our car down a drastic hill. Shock, excitement, and yet, I knew he wasn’t perfect, even then. I just didn’t ever want to acknowledge it. My father stayed, my mother left. I justified the pain by saying maybe it was all worth it because how could I fault the man who stuck around?
That’s how it is for everyone when they’re young. Our parents slowly slip from their concocted perfections and we realize they are human. I knew from the beginning my mother wasn’t perfect, but I idolized my father double time in place of her absence. I’m not delusional though. I know I was sheltered and yet just enough slips through the cracks like water in our basement after a nighttime storm. Waking up in three inches of water, a shock of how did we get to this point? Wet socks hitting the floor. Hindsight is desperate, grabbing for everything I needed to protect. It is too late for it all; there’s only so much you can dry beneath the sun.
Between his red-headed girlfriend’s cocaine addiction and my first case of lice, I had feared my father couldn’t pretend to be perfect any longer for either of our sake. But I held onto the sunny memory of dad at the zoo, of the dad I needed him to be, of my father swinging me around the kitchen to Van Morrison, dizzy dances I only take with you. Dad’s brown eyed girl. Things began to slip. I knew that by the time we got to the big stuff—the divorce, the drugs, the alcoholism, the arrest—we both knew we weren’t fooling anyone.
I can’t say that there was any singular event that made me realize daddy’s sins were just as bad as momma’s. I trace the pictures of my young, foolish father and try to find the moment where we snapped. I look at the photo of him holding my mother in his lap at the beach when they were only tied to one another by an “I love you” and not the burden of two children. Two children before 22. My mother had been used to this, had another kid at 16, but for my father, I imagine I couldn’t have been what he prayed for every night at that age. Dear Heavenly Father, please bless me with two kids, make me a single dad, and grant me the serenity to find meaningless jobs that don’t pay enough to take care of children with mommy issues and speech impediments. God said Amen and look where we were.
I think maybe I de-glorified him on the late-night drive from grandma’s house between when the light turned red and the smack the cigarette pack hit against his palm one, two, three, always four times. I was crying before all of that happened because my mother never showed up for Christmas, and heard a fed-up, young father, frustrated by my mommy issues, say “enough, get over it” and “your mother isn’t coming back.”
Or maybe it was when he hit my little brother for the first time, the threat of violence became something more and under the guise of discipline, I watched anger become the belt from my father’s waist, the flimsy plastic coat hanger from Dollar Tree, a slowly closing fist. The betrayal of his scratching voice said this was more than discipline and I hid until my baby brother’s screaming stopped, wiping tears onto the fur of my pet cat my father would later give away when I was sent off to camp. Maybe it was then that I knew he wasn’t the man I made him out to be. Prayers didn’t stop a broken mirror, a hot pan that wasn’t supposed to hit someone, or the police officer’s holstered gun in my living room.
Maybe it was when I started to throw away the empty cans of Red Bull that would later hospitalize my father or when I washed the dirty shot glasses that sat in hiding on the top of the dryer for a week. The piles of greasy sheet trays and caked-on casserole dishes we hid when CPS came for a surprise visit. Or maybe it wasn’t any of that. Because even then, I could still pretend we were perfect. I could hide it from the outside world.
Maybe it’s when the nightmares of dinosaurs, my father’s death, or aliens from the movie I had watched too early, were comforted by his empty bed, his missing car in the driveway of his empty house. I think it has to be part of that, waking up wanting a middle of the night soothe with the familiar lullaby of homemade songs and bears on picnics and finding him gone just like my mother. I sat at the dining room table and played God with his flowers. He will come home, he won’t come home. He will; he won’t. I played too much with chance even then.
Maybe it was staying there until he pulled into the driveway, one working headlight waking the neighbor’s dog too. I always hid. The new girl undressing in our hallway, I think about sitting outside his bedroom door as he had sex, trying to understand why dad left us alone at night for this one. I started to hate these women. I left when she stopped moaning. Running blindly, silently to my room to pray against the wall for my mother to come back or for a different cat who didn’t scratch you when you slept. Dad never came to check on me.
Maybe it was the next morning. How many times would she wake up and say, “Oh, you have kids?” Or the next few weeks? If she made it that far with two kids with behavioral issues. Or the next child? Maybe it was how overgrown my family tree was becoming as the branches split into a Halloween stencil of half-siblings. Four more kids to drag through it all. Maybe it was that.
Or maybe it was the little things—the cigarettes left in the shower, letting my brother use the only seatbelt in my father’s shaking truck, the gluttonous cleaning of the fridge, the dog’s heartworms we let kill him, the firing from Applebee’s, the dirty house, the interviews with CPS in the principal’s office. “Did your dad ever leave you home alone,” they asked. I knew even then having a dad sometimes was better than not having one at all. “Not really,” I mumble in front of my middle school principal. He wasn’t supposed to know. I am embarrassed to look him in the eyes when I graduate.
And then even the good things, the things that made me wrap my fingers around his growing belly and look up with big brown eyes that begged him not to leave—those things were wrapped up in pain, in knowing we had lost our ability to lie to each other. We were holding onto something we had lost long ago. The food stamps and food pantries, the declined cards and no hot water, the searches in thrift shop dumpsters and the salvaging of other people’s trash and car parts, the lice that let me stay home. There was pain in all of it, even if there were two greasy kids looking with the goofy adoration only children of single parents can have at a father with orange grime hands and a cigarette tucked behind his ear.
My father is drunkenly passed out in bed at 11 am when I go home to visit after months of not seeing each other. Distance and college has given me the chance to ignore how much he’s fallen apart. I ask my younger siblings if he started drinking today or if this is leftover from yesterday. The youngest tells me it happened this morning and I realize she will never think he is perfect like I did. Six years old and she knows that the basement has been flooding for a while now. She will only see him like this. She won’t remember crawling around and laughing with her dad or field trips to the zoo or painting late into the night swirls upon swirls. She will only remember him curled up in the fetal position, wasted on a Wednesday morning after a night of cheap vodka and screaming. I tell her I am proud of her as if that will fix anything. I scour the kitchen, wash the dishes, empty the fridge of moldy food, make the kids clean their room, scrub the toilets and the floors on my hands and my knees. I take the kids and don’t tell my sleeping father. We eat ice cream on a park bench and I hope that this is enough for them to survive. I tell them I love them and think of when my ex-boyfriend told me that we’re both a bit too old to believe that love alone mends steel. Steel forged in fire begins to crack and I know that an “I love you” is not enough anymore. But I do it anyways. I lace their shoes up, hold them close in desperation, and tell them I am proud of them when they get good grades, when they score in soccer, when they wake up happy and alive. I hold onto this; I don’t have much else.
Grandma peels the skin off her tomatoes, and I beg her instead of God now to fix her son. Rehab, therapy, the petals are too big now. “I’m working on it,” she says passively. I look at the photos of my father and wonder how we ever broke this badly. I think of his hands tucking me into bed, of his hum to my music box, of him holding me, his first-born, and smothering me in a sloppy pride, but he is not the man I held onto. I can not find the origin; I recognize it is hard to fault the man who stayed. It is a bad day. I remember when we used to sing.
Kalie Johnson is a recent first-generation college graduate from Baldwin Wallace University with a Bachelor’s in English Literature and a minor in Public Relations. She has been previously published in their literary magazine The Mill. She hopes to pair her passion for nonprofit work in reentry services with writing. When she’s not writing, she enjoys film theory, literary horror, and traveling.