The God propaganda in this room unnerves me. I’m having flashbacks. When I was a kid, my parents sent me to CCD. Extra school. Catholic indoctrination. My father was an altar boy. (Didn’t ask. Don’t want to know.) He went to an all-boys Catholic high school.
CCD was run by nuns. Sisters. They wore habits and played guitar. We sang songs about fighting the devil. If the devil doesn’t like it, he can sit on a tack, we sang. He can sit on a tack, sit on a tack, sit on a tack. “It” was prayer, belief in God. My dad was drunk at my First Communion.
Dead Dads Anonymous (DDA) tonight is inside a Methodist church. I am unclear on what the Methodists believe.
I’m exhausted. Dehydrated.
Louann wears red shoes tonight. She’s got one leg crossed over the other, shaking her foot. Love a good anxious tic. Red is a power color. Power shoes. In college, it was a power shirt. You needed a power shirt. Our power shirts were t-shirts. I had this powder blue baby tee that said famous across the front in silver, sparkly cursive. At high school parties, I used to do shots of vodka and take my shirt off. I was famous for taking off my shirt because I was blind drunk, but that’s not the sort of famous you want. My bras were from K-Mart, and I had/have small boobs, so I don’t know who I thought I impressed. Like, guys didn’t come up to me later and ask me out. Girls didn’t ask my secret to confidence. It was bad attention, but at that age it’s hard to know the difference. I got what I wanted. Everyone was looking at me. Then therapy was like, if you take a second and figure out where all that came from, you’ll find you don’t need the histrionics. I resisted. I agreed. I settled. You can keep it in check until you can’t. You can stay above the water until the thing you thought was gone pulls you under again.
Our leader Jerry sits under a picture of Jesus. Jesus with his eyes rolled up and his arms out like he’s drowning is the most relatable image of all time. Jerry—light jeans, sneakers, casual crewneck sweater and vague beard, one leg crossed over the other, hands clasped around his knee—is not drowning. Jerry leans in. Wants to be the world’s best listener. Wants to the best version of himself. Wants to be our good dad. Jerry doesn’t know I’m hungover. Jerry’s dad was military. Jerry spent the first part of his life trying to be his father and now the second part of his life trying to extract himself from his father. Control tendencies mixed with the belief he is the only one with the correct answer layered with the middle-aged understanding of his own mortality.
“This is my first time here,” the young woman next to Jerry says. She shakes her head, taps her finger against her forehead. “No, sorry. I forgot. Let me start over. My name is Madison.” She brushes her hair back behind her ear, her (on point) silver bracelets jingle-jangling in the quiet room, “and my dad is dead.”
“Hello Madison,” the group says. “I’m sorry.”
Madison nods and squeezes her pamphlet. Jerry passes out the pamphlets at every meeting. I have thirty of them. I try to tell him no, but he thinks the reminders of the Processes are important. The first Process is admitting your father is dead and your regrets were unheard. Madison is new. Madison gets the first part of the First Process right.
Madison takes in a long breath and lets her shoulders drop. Obvious therapy. “I went grocery shopping two days ago. Which, awful to say, I never go grocery shopping. My dad was always like,” and here she changes her voice, drops an octave and is, presumably, now speaking in a man’s voice, “Maddie, you need to go grocery shopping.” She returns to her normal speaking voice. “Anyway, I bought a bunch of oranges and this morning, after staring at the oranges on my counter for days, I cut up an orange. So, my dad loved oranges. He loved fresh fruit. He always had fresh fruit around.” She shakes her head and laughs a little, like the memory of her father and his love of fresh fruit is such a pure delight it brings her to serenity. The group waits. This girl cannot believe she should end on oranges. But, she does. No regrets. Just oranges.
After a moment, Jerry nods. “Do you have anything else to add tonight? Anymore Processing?”
Jerry loves the Processing. The Processing saved Jerry so the Processing will save everyone else. Still control but in a way Jerry thinks is helpful.
Madison wipes tears from her eyes with her thumb, but she’s still smiling through them because that’s who Madison is. A person who smiles through tears. Madison is a person whose father loved oranges and now she’s going to love oranges and she will ride on the belief her transformation came from oranges.
“Thank you, Madison,” Jerry says. “Thank you for sharing about the oranges. We all Process in our own ways, in our own time.”
Madison squeezes the pamphlet again. Jerry opens his palm again. Louann stops shaking her foot.
“Hello,” she says. “I’m Louann.”
“Hello Louann,” we all say though I am a beat behind everyone else because I glare at Madison, how at peace she has become. Because of the oranges? It can’t be.
“And my dad is dead,” Louann continues.
“I’m sorry,” we all repeat, and I try to get in sync.
Jerry’s face is an impasse. Madison doesn’t belong here. She is the actual reason for the Third Process: “We admitted we were jealous of other people’s perceived good relationships with their fathers.”
I sip my water. The whiskey taste is still in my mouth. Next.
The back room at The Brazilian was set up like a funeral, not a sales pitch for energy-efficient windows. Orchids in centerpieces. Dark linen. A woman with black hair wearing a bright blue suit and gold jewelry strutted around the room like a peacock. I charged toward her, the anxiety burning up my throat.
In my most optimistic voice, I confirmed this was the room where the Baker Brothers Window Presentation was to take place. The peacock asked for my name.
“Virginia,” I said. My mouth is dry. “Virginia Monroe.”
“I had a great aunt named Virginia,” she said as she scanned her paper for my name, which she won’t find.
Everyone had a great aunt named Virginia. I tell her I’m here with Frank Monroe.
“Ah,” she said. “Frank Monroe.”
“Frank is my father,” I said, offering the relationship though she did not ask.
“Fantastic. Please have a seat,” she said. “Have a drink compliments of Baker Windows. Get loose, get relaxed. Get ready to buy some energy-efficient windows.” She laughed at herself.
I grazed the tables until I found my place. I was in the middle—the exact middle. On display for everyone. I situated myself, put my bag in the seat with my father’s name. The obvious move was to reach for the pitcher of water, hydrate. Jerry and the Processes were in my head, but I compartmentalized. Jerry and the Processes sounded like a 60s cover band. A man seated at my table looked up from his phone. An older couple sat on the other side of the orchid, super engaged with each other. A server cruised by, and I ordered a screwball whiskey. My dad’s favorite drink. I held steady.
The DDA circle moves around to David. This will be fucking good. David always—yes, there he goes. David always stands up and gives a dramatic clearing of his throat. David is supremely earnest about the Processes. (Jerry is his sponsor, but anyway.) David works the Processes. David is slender. He is 100% who the man’s slim fit was designed to accommodate. David is a CPA. A recovering workaholic. He told me he used to wake up in the middle of the night and reformulate excel spreadsheets to get himself back to sleep. It was soothing, he said, but the truth is I disguised my depression with a strong work ethic. When he takes a bite of food or drinks from a straw, he sticks his tongue out first, which I find unnecessary.
David’s mother had David when she was 16. His dad took off, and his mom was cool for a few years but then tried to reclaim her youth or something and paraded a bunch of men through David’s life, most of whom were abusive, which led David to seek out his “real father” in his early teens. His dad had gone to college, got married, had another kid, but David’s father never told his wife about David. It’s never cool to find out your dad kept you a secret. It took some time, but they all worked through it (David’s stepmom very cool in the end, according to David). David’s father helped him through college but with weird conditions like David had to do all the landscaping and keep the pool clean. David moved out after he graduated, got his own place but then his mom went downhill. David couldn’t turn his mother away so she moved in with him, ran up his credit cards and once showed up to a backyard BBQ at David’s dad’s house and had a meltdown about how David’s father ruined her life because he didn’t use a condom. David’s dad was like, you can’t be in my life if you’re also in your mother’s life, an unfair choice. David’s father had always put requirements on their relationship, and David spent his whole life struggling with the feeling of being unwanted, so David took his mother’s side and didn’t speak to his father for five years until his mother got sick and died. He was in the process of reconnecting with his father (again) when his father dropped dead in the middle of lifting weights one morning. It’s a lot.
David unfolds his pamphlet. “I’ve memorized them,” he says, “but holding them is an important habit.”
Jerry sits up taller. Habit makes me think of the nuns again. I made the mistake once of asking Sister Mary Jane about a small silver pin on her jacket. Little silver baby feet. She said I could have a pin if I wanted one. Yes, of course I wanted one. I was 12. The little feet were cute. Her eyes lit up, and she reached into her nun bag. She gave me a tri-fold pamphlet and the pin. She explained the pin was for the dead babies. All the aborted babies who felt the pain of their death. She instructed me to wear the pin on my jacket, and when people asked me about it, I had to tell them about the babies and the pain. I showed my mother, who rolled her eyes. I showed my father, who told me he was proud of me. Then he got drunk and didn’t come home for a few days, probably out there getting someone pregnant.
David ends by repeating the Fifth Process. “I am happy to say that I have now become conscious that I am driven in my desire to prove my father wrong even if I have caused my own self harm.”
I start to feel bad. This group does a thing to me where I come in thinking I’m over it, but then halfway through realize I’m not, and now I’m itching to get online and shop for red shoes. Heels? No, boots. Cherry-red high-heeled boots. Maybe new jeans to go with them. Maybe a new blazer. Maybe—
Jerry opens his palm to me. Jerry is into yoga, and in yoga when you open your hand with your palm up, you are ready to receive.
“Virginia,” he says. “What are you Processing tonight?”
The circle turns to me. I sit up. Smooth my black pants.
“Hello,” I say. “I’m Ginny.”
“Hello Ginny,” the group says.
“And my dad is dead,” I say.
“I’m sorry,” they say.
“Thank you,” I say. “Pass.”
“You’re not Processing anything?” Jerry asks.
I shake my head no. “I’m all good.”
David makes a little noise. A little “tssk.” David knows about my bullshit. We’ve been coming here the exact same amount of time. Jerry knows too, but he has a better poker face.
“Nothing at all to say?” Jerry asks again.
“No, Jerry. I have nothing to say.”
The group accepts this. They move on. Jerry stares me down even as the woman next to me goes on about how her husband dismisses her father grief by asking her what she’s so sad about because her father died when she was so young, and she never knew him.
I got drunk at the Baker Brothers Windows. Not falling-down-puking drunk but drunk. Those 18 minutes between buzzed and overserved. The space where the anxiety lifts, and I’m okay, and the world is okay. The place where I’d accept or give a hug.
I put my elbows on the table, rested my chin on my hand and watched the older couple across from me. My grandparents’ ages. My grandparents are dead. My father is dead. How do people stay together their whole life? The woman wore a yellow dress and jade earrings. She wore make-up, and her nails were painted a muted red. The man had on a polo shirt. Golfer, right? They all golf. My father was a golfer. He golfed all the time. I drink more.
“I have something to say,” I announced to my table.
The man on his phone leaned toward me. His Facebook app was open. “You’re not here for the windows, are you? No one comes to these things for the windows. I come here to get away from my family.”
“My father died,” I said.
The super couple blinked. The man on his phone was unfazed, scrolling. My whiskey was gone. The ice rattled in the glass. They probably won’t give me a third.
The peacock marched to the front of room. Thank you all, etc. Baker Windows, the best windows, etc. Did you know heat and cold are little devils who penetrate your house through windows? My table turned their attention to her, away from my pronouncement of my dead father.
My first day back at work after my father’s funeral felt like this. When I walked into the breakroom, people left. My office is small. Everyone knew he was sick. Everyone knew I stepped in, took care of him, became his medical advocate, paid his bills, coordinated his hospice care. Everyone knew he died. I don’t know what I thought might happen. A carnival of sorrow. Flowers. One guy averted his eyes, put his hand up as if to block me when we met up in the hall.
Sue who worked in Purchasing, who took her breaks out by the little pond in the courtyard, who walked around the office showing people videos of the ducks in the pond she named after pop stars (QuaxTina, Justin Timberduck), who I spent most of my time at work avoiding, was one of the only people who looked me in my eye and acknowledged my loss. That’s what she said. I’m sorry for your loss. Yes, that was the correct word. Loss. Sue had grief, that was why. She lost both her parents within a year of each other. Once you have grief, you cross a threshold. You’re on the other side, baby, and you’re not going back.
I never had a father. Now, I do not have a father.
The name tag in front of me on the table: Frank Monroe + 1. I pulled my father’s urn from my bag and set it on the table.
Jerry reaches under his seat and removes a basket. “Thank you everyone. Tonight we did a lot of great work. Remember, if you’ve been coming awhile, take a moment to talk to a new person. Let them know they are wanted. Let’s pick our closing song now. Oh, and don’t forget, Ron is here tonight.”
Jerry uncaps a pen, writes something on a half sheet of paper and drops the pen and the paper back into the basket. Jerry whispers to Madison. Madison writes something on the paper and passes the basket. When the basket reaches me, I stare at all the folded papers like easter basket stuffing. Angry but with a sense of duty, I scribble what I think is my father’s favorite song on a piece of paper and shove the basket into the lap of the next person. When the basket makes it back to Jerry, he closes his eyes as he rifles through the papers.
“Livin’ on a Prayer, Bon Jovi,” Jerry says and holds a slip of paper in the air.
A few knowing looks shared. One or two obvious sighs directed at Emma because Livin’ on a Prayer is Emma’s dead dad’s favorite song, and this is the third time this month Emma’s dead dad gets the last song.
Ron is at the door, his mustache is in its full glory. His flannel rolled up at the sleeves, his size 13 shoe taking up all the space. He holds a Trader Joe’s bag. Visible energy shift in the group for Ron, as usual.
The peacock opened and closed a miniature window. See, she said, how easy these windows work?
“Is that an urn?” the man who hated his family nodded at the urn.
“No, it’s my father. He was invited,” I say. “We’re having dinner together. Isn’t that nice?”
The urn was unassuming. Simple wood with a brown cross on the front.
For a dead man, Frank Monroe got an awful lot of junk mail. Half my recycling bin was full of mail with his name on it. T-Mobile wanted my father to take advantage of their new rate plan. The Republic wanted my father to renew his newspaper subscription. And they all wanted to invite my father to a free dinner in exchange for him listening to a presentation about retirement planning or new windows. I threw it all away. The invites kept coming. I wrote DECEASED and popped them back in the mailbox. The kept coming. Invitations to dinners for knee replacement conversations, pain management seminars, and vitamin workshops for men over 65. An invitation flash flood. I came home from work one afternoon, hungry and mad about my general existence, and I got this invite to the Brazilian. An expensive steakhouse downtown. Live your life, Virginia. Say yes. Frank Monroe will RSVP yes.
At the table, I took my cell phone out of my bag and snapped a selfie, me and my father’s urn. Look at us, having dinner together, like we never did when he was alive.
A man in a suit, someone I presumed to be a manager, arrived at the table. I mean, is this room your jurisdiction? Do you have knowledge of energy efficient windows?
“Excuse me,” the man said, a smile straining his face. “Is there a situation here?”
“No situation,” I said. “My father was invited to dinner. I brought him to dinner.”
“Ma’am, you can’t have an urn in here,” the man said, trying to keep his voice low but most people watched now.
I removed a card from my bag, held it between my fingers like a cigarette. The invitation.
He lowered his voice. “You can’t bring an urn in here. There’s a health code.”
I picked up the urn. “It’s sealed. The ashes aren’t coming out.” I shook the urn and people gasped. The super couple woman in her yellow dress covered her mouth.
The manager made as though he was going to take my arm, but I made my point. I tucked the urn under my arm like a football.
“Take Frank Monroe off your mailing list,” I called out. “He’s dead.”
Outside, the very normal feeling of the night elevated my rage. Across from the Brazilian, a wine bar. Yes. A beverage of my own choosing. I dug for my car keys, held the fob out and pressed the button until I saw my car frantically blinking back. I sat in the driver’s seat, shoved my bag over to the passenger side and for a few seconds, let myself feel the silence, how it wanted to consume me, how it let in the thoughts.
When my father was dying, the hospice nurse made a casual mention at how peaceful he looked. I studied his face, his cheekbones. My whole life, everyone told me how much I resembled him.
I’ll go to the wine bar. One drink. Rinse it out.
I move to the DDA refreshments table—cheese, Ritz crackers—and fill a cup of water. Madison slips past me, the smell of vanilla and pumpkin spice trailing behind her. David beelines for Madison, maybe because he follows Jerry’s suggestions or maybe because Madison is young, not more than 25, with perfect skin and easy brunette curls cascading around her shoulders.
“I’m David,” he says, pumping her hand. “You’re Madison? Hi Madison. Welcome. You are wanted here. What did you think?”
“Yeah. Good. Really good,” Madison says. She has her bag over her shoulder staring at Ron setting up his chair and his chocolates.
“You’re staying for Ron?” David asks.
Madison is confused. How do you explain Ron? Ron is our Dead Dad Santa. He shows up to meetings once a month and tells us he’s proud of us and gives us a hug and a piece of chocolate. Madison is a person whose actual father hugged her, I’m sure, so she doesn’t need Ron.
Jerry, with his hands in his pockets, approaches the table. “Ginny,” he says.
I pick up a Ritz cracker and top it with a piece of rubbery cheese.
“Hey.” I turn to Madison. “What was your dad’s name?”
“Sean,” she says but like she’s not sure.
“Sean? GenX Dad, right?”
Madison frowns. “Yeah?”
“I like to guess a dad’s generation from their name. Most Dead Dads here are Boomers. My dead dad is a Boomer. Frank. David’s dad was Charles. Boomer. Sometimes though it’s just like Bill and Bill could be anything.” I snap my fingers. “We had a Greatest Gen Dead Dad here for awhile. Oh, he was fucked up. He got better, but yeah, he was super fucked up. David, do you remember his name? Wasn’t it like Royal or something?”
“You missed the meeting last week,” Jerry says.
I regret sharing with Jerry I’d been going to free dinners with my father’s urn to prove a point about society.
“I had a thing,” I say.
Behind us, a newer member, a man (Grayson?), steps up to Ron. He holds his hand out for Ron to shake it, which Ron does—Ron respects boundaries—but the man at the last moment fakes out and goes in for a hug. Ron pats the man’s back. They pull apart. “I’m proud of you,” Ron says, and Grayson lets out a sob so violent the recoil moves the room.
Madison grips her purse strap so hard her knuckles are white. Yes. I could have misjudged her. No one who finds DDA is a whole person. We’re all here chasing the thing we’ve chased our whole lives.
Ron and the man are still in an embrace. Ron pats the man’s back and tells him he’ll be all right. He’ll be okay. He’ll survive.
Stephanie Austin’s short stories and essays have appeared in numerous online and print magazines including The Sun, Autofocus Lit, American Short Fiction, Wigleaf, Pithead Chapel, The Nervous Breakdown, jmww, and others. Her CNF chapbook Something I Could Say is forthcoming from WTAW Press. You can find more of her writing at stephanieaustin.net and she’s on Twitter @lucysky