Tonight, I figure that only my father’s pockets hurt. He’s just yanked from them a large amount of money to buy sixteen limes for his mother-in-law’s gin-and-tonics. Which is about an orchard more than she needs.
When my dad was thirteen, his father died in a hospital where they got the last name wrong. My dad bolted for the coast. After he came back, he cut up all his father’s belts, which his mother had used to beat him, and he had used to beat his older sister, and his older sister had used to beat the roosters and the younger sister, before the younger sister ran away to fame as a professional wrestler.
Our truck pounds home from the grocery store, seethes around corners. Outside of our apartment building, on the corner, a man in a flannel coat clutches a stop sign pole. It’s like he’s choking it or something. We park behind one of our neighbor’s vans. As we get out, the man comes over.
“Sorry, hey, you got fifty cents? For a phone call?”
My father scrunches his mouth. The man stumbles closer.
“Somebody just took off with my daughter,” he says. “I fell down in the shower, took me a while, took me a while to — and I guess her mother just took her. So now I got to call them, I guess. I got seven cars, right? I mean, they don’t work.” Whiskers coat his neck. He grins. Too big.
My Christmas khakis are crammed with bobbles like a cell phone and a Swiss army knife. Even a few bills, and this guy’s not picky. His eyes swamp on both of us. Like maybe the kid’s got some heart his old man don’t. But I inch behind my dad’s coat. I feel the cold in its scrunches.
Maybe they’ll fight. There are some things I can swing: knuckles, the red knife.
Remember: winter once blockaded caves. A lack of meat meant tossing dry bodies into the blizzard. Beards reeked with guilt and men ripped away thighs to prove and prove. Remember: we were all in it against it.
Something about that makes me hope this man is an asshole. Makes me hope we all brawl until we’re nothing but bruised noise and gut dust.
But my father pulls out a dollar.
The guy nods and opens his mouth and closes it again and finally takes the dollar, rolling the bill thin as an ear swab. He jerks his hand across the air a couple times, like waving, even though he’s standing right there. Then he takes off, towards the railroad bridge, towards the smattering of streetlights and stars farther up the hill.
And I feel nothing but cold, like someone just pushed my face into one of those toy campfires. Where it’s not warm, where a tiny fan flitters yellow paper.
Then my father walks over to the van parked in front of our truck. He raps on the window.
“You all right?”
I peek over his shoulder: our downstairs neighbor sits hunched above his steering wheel. What he’s doing isn’t clear.
“It’s fine,” he calls. “Everything’s pretty much —” he calls, and stops.
My father twists the bag of limes around his wrists.
Once we’re inside, by the mailboxes, I ask, “What was he doing?”
My father sighs. He mimes his hand as a bottle.
“That’s not breaking his thing, those probation rules?”
But my father doesn’t answer. On the way up the stairs, we pass the guy’s door. We hear the strain of boiling kettles, silverware clattering, a tinny Nutcracker suite. A woman’s voice cries, “This is beautiful, watch how he dances — ”
But we are already home. I look up, into my father’s jaw, into his hair.
We are wiping our feet. We are before what follows.