Daddy calls me squirt when he calls. He speaks in a too-friendly voice, the one that says I can only keep this up for so long.
Daddy moved to Coarsegold, California when I was twelve. I got in the shower, and by the time I was out, he was gone. My brother, Andre, credits Daddy’s then-girlfriend, now-wife, with giving him the initiative to strike out for gold-strike territory though that vein ran dry a hundred years ago. Andre refers to our half-siblings as Daddy’s second brood. Aryan-blond and pale-skinned, I’ve only seen Oliver and Bennet on snapshots. Andre has a great mind, but he’s full of bitterness. He says, “If I ever see Dad again, I’m going to stab him in the ear with a fork.”
Daddy sent me a fourteen karat watch on my twenty-first birthday. All my other gifts, combined, paled in comparison. The little bottle of perfume from Momma, carton of cigarettes (on the sly) from Andre. Birthday dinner was lentils and rice, box wine and ice cream cake. I got some other gifts—from friends, co-workers, the then-boyfriend—and that watch was like a diamond among dirt when the unwrapping was done.
Daddy calls and says, “What did you think of the watch, Squirt?” I tell him I put it on and haven’t taken it off. I actually put the lid back on the box and stuck it in my underwear drawer and it’s been there since. This is what I wrote in my diary on the evening of my birthday celebration: An uneventful day.
Daddy would often say, “Waste not, want not,” when he was here. I wanted to please him, so I’d clean my plate.
Daddy said before he left, “I bought that viola so you could learn to play Bach,” and I’d play for two hours each day after school. By the time I was eleven, I could play the Viola Sonata No. 2 frontwards and back.
Daddy says they discovered the tiniest mammal that ever lived, Batodonoides, just outside his back door in the Golden State (not the Sunshine State, which is Florida, where he left Momma, Andre and me). He took his family to see an installation about this miniature, extinct animal and the replica they had was posed on the eraser end of a pencil. Afterwards, he took the wife and kids out for dinner and ice cream. It’s at times like these that he loses the avuncular tone and describes something so as I can see it. I imagine people crowded into a little room lit by a hanging bulb, gathered around a shoebox to look down onto the smallest mammal ever, dead now more than fifty million years.
Daddy sends me photos of his new wife in Balenciaga, boys in Abercrombie & Fitch. Andre becomes a maelstrom of fury when he sees these pictures, so I’ve stopped showing him. Despite the sadness they bring, I’m always eager to open the envelope when I see the return address.
Daddy says he wants to meet my fiancé, Larkin. A series of comments run through my head: He’s black. (Or better, Persian (that means ‘Iranian’)). Or The medication seems to be working. Or something like He’s got a glass eye or He’ll be out of jail any day. My arrangement of the Viola Sonata makes him hard as a rock. We fuck like beasts. The fact that none of this is true is not what keeps me from speaking it.
Daddy asks “Remember that nativity scene we would put out on the coffee table at Christmastime?” He says untitled artwork is always best. He says he’s been reading a great book called Iron John. He goes into the Northern California woods to play drums with a bunch of other men in breechcloths.
Daddy’s new wife is a metropolitan gal, but tolerates his eccentricities.
Daddy asks me to tell him the truth about Momma. My palms sweat and my mouth gets dry.
Daddy always remembers my birthday, but can’t seem to get the zodiac right. He guesses any sign except the actual one, Gemini, the twins. I want to shriek like Medusa and turn him to stone.
Daddy says he’s having his wife’s portrait painted. In black and white.
Daddy is pleased with his life though he suffers from Napoleon syndrome. He’s passed down to Andre both his size and his demon’s rage. Andre zipped up on his johnson once and stomped our kitty dead. The next morning, he sat down to breakfast like nothing had happened. Sometimes, when Andre’s been drinking, he describes the ways he’d like to torture our father to death. He describes stopping up his anus with a cork and feeding him canned beans until his stomach explodes. He describes stabbing him in the back with an eight-inch blade. He describes letting his pit bull, Roscoe, at his testicles covered in dog food.
Daddy has a new phone number, 845-758-7900. There has been no mention of divorce or moving, but my caller ID informs me this is in New York. The words “wife,” “boys,” “California,” have disappeared from his monologue.
Daddy says women are hard to appreciate when they’re right up in your face. I’m eating fried chicken. I don’t put down the drumstick, speak between bites. I’m ripping flesh with my teeth, but he doesn’t notice. I just have to eat a little more and then I’ll be full. Each day, my skin stretches to accommodate the food I’m eating: hamburgers, fries, ice cream, Vienna sausages, fried pork rinds, candy bars, cotton candy, pizza, burritos, cake…
Daddy asks when I’m getting married. I tell him that Larkin enlisted in the army and is in Iraq. I tell him that he has written recently to say that he is not sure he wants to marry. His best friend was blown out of his boots by a road-side bomb.
Daddy says he doesn’t miss his ex-wife, just his two sons. He says it’s taken him a long time to realize he still loves my mother. I don’t have the heart to tell him that Momma has been dead for years. It would be a bitter sort of comfort to know that her death was quick and probably not that painful. I don’t tell him that I was hanging wet sheets in the back yard when I heard a pop like a firecracker, yet shorter, sharper. It was a sound with a trace of familiarity, but enough strangeness to it to tell you that something bad had happened.
Daddy has adopted a Brit accent. This will turn into gangster inflection mid-sentence. At first, his voice will drown out Ainsley’s on The West Wing, but at some point it will seem that the two of them are speaking to each other. I’m not exactly sure when he hangs up, dial tone merging with TV drama. During a scene in a restaurant, a woman says, “If you’d like to make a call, please hang up and dial again.” Earrings jingle next to the mouthpiece even as Ainsley turns her head quickly to wave down a waiter, expensive watch flashing on a wrist, dangling gold earrings vibrating in time to the sound at my ear. Refrigerator air cools my face—mouth full of pickle and fingers in cake—and then the phone starts to beep.