It was the first time I’d seen my dad in five years. He wore a green windbreaker and a fishing hat and stood on the doorstep of the studio apartment I rented in Phoenix. He held a backpack over one shoulder, and I saw no other luggage through the screen. I could only hope he wasn’t here to stay a while.
“Would ya let me in,” he said. “It’s hotter than a bitch in heat out here.”
Of course, how else would you greet your estranged daughter? I thought about leaving him to desiccate, but a body on the doorstep might cause more trouble than I wanted.
“They call this April?” he asked, when he stood in my apartment, stripping off his jacket to reveal a thoroughly sweated Georgia State t-shirt. My cat, Groucho, sniffed his ankles and grungy socks. In 2005, my dad discovered Crocs and has refused all other footwear since. What other shoe can you just hose off? he proclaimed. The last time I saw him in person, I had just graduated from college. He came to ask me, a twenty-two-year-old waitress at a diner, if I could loan him some money for an investment in a portable solar-powered cooler/radio-device-thing. That floated.
“You’ll make a huge return,” he promised.
“I don’t have it,” I said.
This wasn’t true. I am a lot of things and one of them is a liar. I had two thousand hard-earned dollars in the bank, almost a thousand nights of swallowing catcalls and pouring sweat and sweet tea. Uncountable plates of burgers and fries slung onto sticky counters, three years spent wiping down tables, polishing forks, sweeping the brackish carpet. And as soon as I had my diploma, debt-free, due to the fact that I was poor as shit and good at multiple-choice tests, I ran. Hell, I flew, one-way, to the first city I could think of. Which happened to be Phoenix. Which might not have been the best choice.
So, here was my dad, sinking into my scratched-up Ikea futon, asking what I have to drink or if I have any of that “good, west coast weed,” laying around. I got him some water from the tap and handed it to him. He chugged and almost coughed.
“God, this tastes like the inside of a thermometer,” he said.
“Sorry about that,” I said. “City pipes.” In fact, I had a Brita pitcher in the fridge filled with cold, filtered water, but I didn’t tell him that. His drink of choice is Coors Lite. If that tells you anything.
“So,” he said, sipping more slowly. “You’re a city girl now.”
“City woman. And I’ve been here for almost five years. Where have you been?”
He set his glass on the bookshelf and wiped the dirty crescent of facial hair around his mouth. “You know I had to find out you moved through Facebook?”
“Since when can you use Facebook?” Once, he got scammed by an email from someone claiming to be a Nigerian prince. He sent the “prince” five thousand dollars to pay VAT on what was supposed to be five million bucks’ worth of gold. Needless to say, it never panned out.
“This volunteer showed me. They got classes at the library now.”
“Do you have an account?” I imagined my dad trying to get in touch with high school classmates. Hey Mike, how did you turn up? Gee, Greg, gotta tell you, my wife’s dead, my daughter doesn’t speak to me, and I’ve been in and out of jail cells and communes since 2009. How about you?
“Of course not!” he snorted. “What do you take me for? An idiot?” Now that he’d finished his water, he tapped his palm with his fingers and looked around the apartment. I’d mostly furnished it with stuff I found on Craigslist or dragged in off the street. Groucho had curled up on top of the wardrobe, unaccustomed to visitors.
“You didn’t get my address off of Facebook,” I said. “What the hell did you do, buy it online?”
“Well, I messaged Mags,” he said.
“She told me not to tell you, but I’m trying to be more honest.”
“Great,” I said. “Just what we need. More honesty.” I went into the kitchen, the furthest I could get from my dad. I turned on the sink.
“And next time,” I yelled over the water. “I’d really appreciate it if you didn’t ask my ex-girlfriend for my address when you want to stop by.”
I rinsed a bowl and a spoon. I sent shreds of kiwi down the disposal. I inherited my dad’s busy hands. Obviously, he could see that I had no money. I lived in a shoebox stacked among other shoeboxes. Could I tell my dad to just go? Could I say that I didn’t want him here? For all his callousness, I’ve always been kinder than I should.
“I can put you up in a hotel for the night,” I said. I turned off the sink and dried my hands on the front of my jeans. “How did you even get here?”
“Drove,” my dad said.
“It took two days.”
“What about a Super 8?” I asked, pulling out my phone to check rates. This would kill my budget. So, I guess he would get money from me after all.
“I can sleep in the van.”
“Dad, you aren’t sleeping in a van.”
My dad gave a bark of laughter. He was so loud I worried the neighbors would hear. “You think this is any different?” he asked, waving his arms around. Groucho startled, his ears pricked and eyes wide in alarm. “I just call it tiny living.”
“I have running water,” I said.
“Well, aren’t you the Queen of Egypt?”
I sat at the desk chair across from him and looked at my dad, really looked at him, for the first time since I left Georgia. He was skinnier than I remembered, his teeth nicotine-stained, hair uncombed and greasy. The shirt had small holes pocking the sleeves and collar. His gray eyes were wet and pink. He resembled something drowned, washed ashore, forsaken. He was all I had.
“The van’s alright,” he said.
“Down by the river,” I whispered.
He smiled; it was one of our oldest jokes.
We should have seen it coming; it hit us like a train. First, she just had headaches, then sleeplessness. She’d walk through the house at night, senseless. She forgot birthdays and what she ate for dinner and who she saw at the grocery store and why she went into a room. “White spots,” said the neurologist. “No need for concern.”
Within a year she couldn’t speak. By the time they found the mass, my mother was a husk, all her life sucked away by the malignant tumor shadowing her spine. She died two weeks after my eighteenth birthday.
Nearly ten years ago, I thought, as my dad and I sat across from each other, unspeaking. The last brilliant day in October, so each year her death seemed to signify the start of winter. Perhaps this is why I moved to Arizona. Subliminally, I knew I could no longer handle the season’s cold darkness.
Sometimes I think her loss nearly killed us; sometimes I think it did kill my dad. If slower, less sudden. A more drawn-out pain. When I was a child our city zoo had two elephants, named Janet and Mercy, who, both female, were “best friends.” This was Georgia. There were no sapphic pachyderms here. When Janet died, the zoo quickly removed the entire exhibit. Mercy went to a sanctuary in Florida and passed a year later. The cause listed? Grief.
“We could go to the art museum,” I said.
My dad blinked at me.
“Well, I mean, you’re here. We might as well do something.” Really, I worked at the museum and all employees got two free passes. Entertaining, free, and air conditioned, it checked all the boxes.
“Not really sure if an art museum is my speed, kiddo,” he said.
I sighed. It was like this when I was a kid, as well. Not the right time. Or too hot, or there was a game on television. Or he had to work, or he needed to relax, or didn’t you see the lawn needed mowing?
“Too bad,” I said. “There’s an exhibit on old racecars. I don’t know much about them. If you came, you could tell me. I’m sure they’ll have things to read, though.”
“You’re going alone?” he asked.
“Sure, why not? I don’t want to sit inside all day.”
He gave me a look like a hurt stray dog. “I mean if you wanted to see the exhibit so badly, you could have said so,” he said. He stood from the couch, which shifted under the movement.
“Where are you going?” I asked.
“To the museum,” he said. “We’ve got to look at the cars, don’t we?”
I followed him out the door, grabbed my wallet and keys on the way. Sometimes talking to my dad could feel like playing chess, but he taught me how to play a good game.
When I was little, my mother liked to tell stories, long and twisted tales that sometimes unfolded over several nights. My favorite was the story of the Night People. My dad found it unbearable, but I liked to hear about the ghostly beings who lived in the underside of our world, like inverted colors in a photograph.
“If the whole world was this shirt,” my mother said one night, pinching my pajama top. “The Night People would live on the side closest to your skin. We never see them; we never hear them. But they live in our house and eat from our fridge, watch our televisions and take baths in our tubs.”
“Jesus Christ, Nancy, you’re going to give her bad dreams,” my dad said.
But I liked to imagine the Night People, sharing the seam of our world. They were so unlike us Day People; they were conscientious of their space, only used what they needed. I thought perhaps the world would be better if the Night People could be heard.
“Do you remember Mom’s stories?” I asked my dad, after I drove us to the Phoenix Art Museum and parked under the palo verde trees. The plastic t-rex roared from her red cage on the lawn.
“That dinosaur should be bigger,” my dad said. “That’s not scientifically accurate.”
“I don’t know, Dad,” I said. I pulled him inside the lobby, showed my employee pass at the gate.
“So that’s why you wanted to come here,” Dad said. “I knew I smelled something.”
“It’s just something to do,” I said. We walked down the wide marble hallway, a space much larger than my apartment or the trailer my dad moved into after my mother died.
“So, what do you do, give tours?”
“I work in acquisition.”
My dad nodded, scratched the back of his neck. He stared at the vaulted ceilings, the manicured gardens outside.
“I’ve got to drop the kids off at the pool,” he said.
I pointed him to the bathroom, told him to meet me by the stairs when he’s through. For the first time in many years, I wondered how my dad felt about my life. What he thought of his estranged daughter. Was I still the lesbian disgrace, emotionally unavailable as my mother slipped away? Did he still wish I lived down the street in Hart County, Georgia, with a red-blooded husband and half-a-dozen kids, chickens in the yard and dust on my bare feet?
He returned from the bathroom and I took him up the stairs to the second floor, bypassing the cars even as he pointed.
“Let’s go up here first,” I said simply.
One of my favorite parts of working at the museum was to watch people watching art. My dad was no different. I led him through the Ansel Adams exhibit, photograph by photograph. My dad was a man who worked with his hands until his hands betrayed him and had since only found solace in distance. Were we really so different? When I left home to get an art degree, did I think I’d end up running data in a back office, instead of curating my own work on the floor?
He stared at a photograph of a moon rising above the white wings of a mesa. I watched his shoulders loosen, his face soften. Something within him was being unpitted. I had no knowledge of what it was.
We knew my mother was sick long before the cancer. She fell into rages easily, sobbed at the slightest touch. It took an act of god to get her out of bed and then not even that could move her. As I became what some would call a woman, my mother became less and less familiar. She used to be a purveyor of follow-your-nose adventures, the planner of weekend camping trips. She orchestrated magnificent birthdays for me, until I turned eleven and told her kids no longer had parties.
My dad took her to doctors, therapists, specialists. He spent his paychecks on cures he thought were hocus pocus, clinging to anything in the chance it might be the hope for my mother. He just needed something to believe in.
I knew what was happening. She was becoming a Night Person. She was sinking into the seams of our world. Was this my fault? Why couldn’t I hold her to the surface? I tried to reach out for her, over and over, to no avail. Finally, I stopped trying and she floated away.
“I never blamed you,” I said to my dad, touching him on the shoulder. He tightened at my hand and relaxed.
“Then why were you so set on disappearing?” he asked.
The moon rose over the mesa. The aspens looked like beams of light. God’s fingers, my mother used to call them. Could I tell my dad I felt guilty? That I knew I wasn’t the daughter he wanted? I knew I could only be myself away from my past.
“I never blamed you, either, you know,” Dad said, not facing me. We looked at a photo replicated three times, a profile of Ansel, each printed from the same negative, each slightly different. Each choice the artist made created a new version of the past. Did we do the same with our memories, with our lives?
“I didn’t do my best,” I said. “When she was sick.”
“You were a kid! How were you supposed handle it?” My dad moved away from the exhibit. Across the room an open door led to a mysterious darkness. “What’s that? he asked.
“We call it the firefly room,” I said. I followed him over. We turned the corner into the darkened room of mirrors. I let my dad go in first, so he could be alone.
The night my mother died I was smoking pot with a girl I knew from high school. We drove around town in her Camry, finally ending up at the top of the mountain where all the radio towers blinked in the night. I inhaled and felt like the world was swirling around me. It wasn’t the first time I’d snuck out, or smoked weed, or kissed a girl, but something about the missed calls when I finally checked my phone held a tinge of blame. If I’d stayed home, if I’d been straight, if I’d been good, my mother wouldn’t have died. I could have kept her on this side a little longer.
I held this grief all through college, despite therapists and friends and partners who told me I was pretty much insane. Some nights, when I felt particularly cruel to myself, I replayed the last voice mail my father sent me, that night. Hey, Skip. Call me back. I love you.
Skip was the nickname my father used when he felt particularly proud of me. When I learned to roller blade, throw a curve ball. When I caught a fish or climbed up to the tallest point in the oak tree. “Come on down, Skip, it’s time to eat,” he’d call. He didn’t use words like love. My mother used to joke she had to teach him how to woo her. But I understood my dad’s coarse affection.
When I stepped into the mirrored room, full of lights glowing and fading, empty of people at this strange weekday hour, I didn’t see my dad. He wasn’t silhouetted in the mirrors or the sparks of light. As the colors changed from orange to purple to green, I felt more and more convinced he wasn’t in the room. And then I saw the shape of him, star fished on the floor.
“Dad!” I cried. I searched for the duct-taped light switch that only museum employees knew existed. Morbid thoughts ran through my mind—he’d had a stroke, a heart-attack, he drove all the way across the country just to die on me too.
The whole time my mother was ill, really ill, I stayed out of the house. It was a pattern I’d practiced since early high school, spending all my time downtown or locked in my bedroom, sneaking out the window at night, smoking cigarettes in lamplit corners with my friends. We were much too young, and our city was much too small, to tramp around the streets after ten p.m., but there wasn’t yet a curfew and anywhere seemed better than my house. It was my biggest fear that I’d be the one to find my mother’s body.
She wanted to die at home, so my dad hired aides and nurses and rented a hospital bed and installed a ramp and handicap bars on the bathtub and toilet. This meant for months after her death our house was a minefield of reminders of her final days. IV bags stored with the dishes. Syringes in the silverware drawer. I never came home after the funeral. I spent holidays with my girlfriend, Mags, the first serious romance in my young life, where I threw all my love and yearning after my mother’s death.
When I saw my dad laying on the floor in the infinity room, those fears rose again. My throat felt constricted, like I was being suffocated. I thought, when my mother died, something in me would realize. But it never did. Even after she was buried, nothing had changed.
I couldn’t find the light switch, so I shrank to his side and tried to remember the CPR classes I took to be a camp counselor. I touched my dad’s chest, gently, surprised at his firmness and warmth.
“Look up,” he said.
“I thought you fainted,” I cried. I was really crying now, as I hadn’t in a long time, since before my mother’s illness, since before she faded into a Night Person. My tears dripped onto my dad’s shirt.
“Shhhhh,” he said softly. “Don’t cry. Look up with me.”
I lay on my back. I looked up at the lights, LEDs strung and multiplied by all the mirrors. It was more beautiful, looking up. We lay there on the hard-wooden floor, my dad and I, not speaking, not even moving when other visitors stepped into the edges of the room and left, unsure if they could walk further.
“Do you remember her stories about the Night People?” I asked him after a while.
He laughed, softly, a small wheeze. “Of course. Terrifying. I don’t know why she insisted on telling you those stories as a child.”
“I don’t think they’re scary,” I said. “I mean, think about it. A world of people just on the other side, and we’ll never know who they are, but they’re always just beside us. Living their lives. Like we live ours.”
My dad didn’t answer. We watched the lights change to pink, white, blue. Looking up, if I stared into the middle distance, it felt like I was floating among the stars.
“I blamed myself,” I said. “For not knowing when she died.”
He grunted. The lights changed. The exhibit had been here for longer than I had, and I’d never thought to lay down inside it.
“You Who Are Getting Obliterated in a Swarm of Dancing Fireflies,” I said. “That’s the real title.”
My dad sat up. He took off his fishing hat and scratched his head. I watched the shadow of his movements, a voidance of light, like the Night People creeping from the attic. Maybe we were all trying to live our lives, without bothering others, in our own separate ways.
“She’d like that,” he said. “Your mother.”
When we got back to the apartment, dusk was falling, and the city was surrounded by a brilliant sunset. The clouds were stained purple and the whole sky was a brilliant salmon-orange and the moon curved on the horizon, a crooked grin.
I was heating pasta sauce and meatballs on the stove when I realized I never learned why my dad even came to Phoenix. He was laying on the couch, taking a rest period, as he called it. I convinced him it was too hot to sleep in the van, even in April.
I watched my dad sleeping. I realized that he was an old man, that sooner rather than later he’d have his own health problems and there would be another year or more of grief and then he would be gone, and I would be an orphan. Is this the only point in life? Watching everyone leave you?
He’d left his backpack on the kitchen table and because I am not a particularly honest person, I rifled through it while I waited for the water to boil. A journal, which I didn’t open. An extra pair of clothes, two sets of boxers, three extra pairs of socks. A tube of toothpaste and a brush, an inhaler and his wallet. A knife, a packet of peanut butter crackers. No clues. He snorted in his sleep and I quickly repacked his bag. The water began to boil, and I added the pasta.
Soon we’d eat dinner. Then, he’d go to sleep in the bed, and I’d take the couch. Maybe we’d read for a bit, in our solitary haloes of light. Maybe we’d both sneak out for a cigarette, at different times, still unable in all our love to admit to our bad habits. Maybe I’d wake in the morning to find my dad dead in the sheets, his body stiff and cold. Maybe I’d suffer an inexplicable aneurism in the night, and he’d be the one to suffer the grief.
I thought of the trio of portraits that Ansel Adams developed, the way that each one came from the same origin, how his choices created change. A lineage. What would I leave behind? Did we die, or did we just sink between the seams, to a different side? Is that where I would finally know my mother? The choice to climb out the window. The choice to go to the mountain top. The choice to be subsumed among the radio towers. When did I leave her behind? At which moment? There was no way of knowing. We kept moving forward into the obliteration of light.
Jules Hogan is an MFA candidate at ASU and Fiction Editor for Hayden’s Ferry Review. Stories can be found in the Raleigh Review, Appalachian Heritage, McSweeney’s Internet Tendency, and other such wonderful journals. Jules is the 2021 Science Meets Fiction Fellow at the HWK Institute for Advanced Studies.