Father stands on the curb at the base of the stairs the way the dog had in the summer months, when he slept outside on the pavement because Mother said he smelled too much in the heat.
When I called, I told him to pack a few things to bring with him.
“There are things people need, Dad,” I said.
He stands there now, in the patch of cement where the dog had laid the summer before. Nothing but a toothbrush in the fist of his left hand.
The sidewalk between us is broken and riddled with weeds.
“Climb in,” I say.
Father collects ants and farms them. He keeps them in an aquarium over the dryer in the basement where he can watch them tunnel.
Those nights after they got into it, Mom used to spray the aquarium with cleaner. Occasionally, she killed off a colony. One pocket of the aquarium lay fallow for several months and the tunnels in the earth collapsed.
The summer after she was gone, each night after dinner Dad took his coffee cup out to the sidewalk to collect his demons. He said the sugar attracted them. I remember watching him through the kitchen window, bent over at the waist, holding his dirty coffee cup lip-down to the weeds.
“Dependable animals,” he said to Mother the only time she had visited. They were in the laundry, collecting the rest of her things.
The phone on my kitchen wall is old and red and reminds me of an organ. They say nervousness lies in the mind. I say it sleeps in the pores. Father once said that a phone was a heart cleaved from behind the curtain of the lungs and made to answer for itself. Father is a man of my own graces. I check in on him the way I make tea for Mark in the morning and scrub my nose to get the August out of it at night. Father rarely takes calls that are not expected.
A week ago, when I called him, he answered the phone promptly at six. “Expecting a death, Dad?” I said. He laughed.
“Just wanted to find the receiver.”
“Have you watered the mint?” I asked.
“Can’s got a hole,” he said.
A week later, I reach for the phone and hope that the similar red box on his wall has not dried up in all this heat.
“Dad?” I say. The Duke Ellington box set that Mom bought him for his birthday is more audible than his breath in the receiver on the other end of the line.
“Dad. This Sunday we’re going to the cabin on the lake, Dad. I’ll be there at 10:00. Be ready.”
I try to sound the way Mom did when she told you something you didn’t like but had to hear anyway.
“Okay, kiddo,” he says.
“Bring some things with you,” I say before I hang up the receiver.
“There are things people need, Dad,” I say.
When we hang up, he sits in his rocker in front of the window which faces out onto the street. The street is lined with houses whose windows look like identical holes punched out of the kind of boxes with perforation. Growing up, each night I sat perched in his lap, my head beneath his chin so we could watch the shadows walk the street together.
“Full exposure,” he said.
He sits there now in the rocker until the fence around the yard is the only thing that penetrates the darkness.
He is waiting for her shadow to return, to lay hard and long at the gate.
His legs in the seat beside me in the car on the way to the lake look skinny, like mine that summer when I first became a woman and learned the power of bare flesh in shorts. His jeans have holes and smell like copper. “Have you been eating?” I ask. He used to be the type of man who made sure his daughters had a good bed and plenty to eat. “I fed the dog,” he says. He fumbles for his keys. As we turn the bend toward the cottage, he leans forward and steadies his toothbrush which sits on the dash.
In the cabin by the sink there is a bright yellow kitchen mitt, hanging against the wooden beams. A picture of Mom. I kick it under the stove before he comes through the door. Later that night when he thinks I am sleeping, I watch him retrieve it from under the stove and toss it into the flames. The cotton burns quick and yellow until the underbelly melts over the grate. He sits in front of the fire and watches the flames while he drinks from her bottle.
The last summer we came here together, we caught fifty fish. Cooked them over an open flame. The fish were ripe for being caught that summer. Father said they were almost jumping out of the water, and into the pot. They were so ready.
Mom was working hard at home, she’d said into the receiver. Those nights when we had gone into town to call. “Storm on the home front?” I asked Father as we left the phone booth the night before our return. He shuffled the dirt with the toes of his boots.
“You know how she hates to leave the azaleas,” he said.
In the evenings at the cabin we shuck corn in front of the window. The sink below it is large and cold and steel. We do this together now because shucking the corn had always been the job of my mother. I remember when I was young, staring in at her one evening shucking the corn in front of the window from my seat in the blue reclining chair in front of the TV. My father patted her ass with his hand and asked her if she needed any help getting things undressed. For years I had thought that R-rated movies consisted of scenes of women shucking corn.
The first night Father and I arrive we shuck in silence. When the dog barks, I drop a husk and spill a glass of milk with the back of my hand. I find an old recorder under a pile of hats in the back of the closet while looking for a rag. I pop the tape in over dinner, thinking it will be an old bootleg that reminds my father of the days when he was young and still smoked pot. Mother’s voice comes through the speaker. I am six and we are singing the Twelve Days of Christmas. My voice is an octave higher than hers and I say Partrich instead of Partridge because I have trouble locating the hard D.
That night Father and I get drunk and smoke cigarettes together like he’s not my father. We listen to Neil Young’s Old Man on the hi-fi in the living room and record over the tape. Twelve Days are too many to count, never mind listen to, when you are alone. We fall asleep on the deck before the sun. The dog and I are in a heap in the hammock. Across the porch Father is going to meet the day wearing the bright-green hat we used to dress the snowmen. He is sitting with his back against the steps with the old guitar that is missing the E string, fingering middle C like it might get up and walk away.
One year we dressed the snowman in Father’s new jacket. Mom was out gathering groceries for dinner. The suit had been a gift. I’d helped pick it out. I remember her face in the window when she saw the suit on the snowman as she pulled into the drive. Father waved and called out, “Who’s an upright citizen now?”
The next morning, I play the tape that we recorded while we were drunk and listening to Neil Young. The most common word that I hear Father say is before. I count. He uses it thirty-three times on side A alone. Father comes into the living room after his shower while I am still listening. “Before what?” I say. “Before the azaleas,” he says.
That night I am ten in my dream. It is the summer when the fish were so ready. We head home before planned to show Mom all our catch. As we pull into the drive, I can feel their scales in my hands, jumping out of the cold, clear water. We are a day early. We were full of fish.
Mom is in the garden of the house that is not our own. She is trimming his azaleas. Wearing shorts and wielding scissors.
I think his name is Daniel. His mailbox says Ramone.
I can see her thigh from the car as she bends over. The hand that reaches out to pat her behind is not my father’s. She is not shucking corn.
When I leave him at the cabin now ten years later, the dog is in the chair in front of the TV and Father is in the backyard tilling the garden.
He brought a mattress out on the porch.
“Upright citizen?” I tease him.
Sometimes he puts a lamp on, so that he can work in the dark.
I drive by the phone booth on my way out of town. The one where we used to call Mother. When I can’t think of her number, I call Father and ask about the weather.
“It’s almost time for the thaw,” he says.