My sister Anne opens the door and stretches her arms around me. Behind her are cardboard boxes, taped up and bulging at the sides like dead bullfrogs, and a dim table lamp with dragonflies along its stained-glass shade. Anne says in my ear that it’s so nice to see me and tightens her embrace. Her grasp could crack walnuts. When she ushers me inside, I hesitate, wondering if I’ve made a mistake coming back, but then she leads me by the hand, and I close the door behind me.
In the kitchen, I settle in at the table while Anne makes some drinks for us. She mixes them with her finger, the cubes clinking lightly against the glasses. “It really is good to see you, Felix,” she says again and takes the seat across from me. Her long, auburn hair has started greying near the temples. She has it tied up in a blue bandana, pulled back from her glistening forehead. Ray Charles belts out from a record player in some other room.
I steady both hands on my drink. “It’s nice to see you too.”
During our recent phone conversation, Anne had relayed short, journalistic details about the cause of death (blood poisoning from a bladder infection), the funeral plans, and how the house would be sorted, but had offered up little of herself. Looking at her now, I can’t help but think how her life is more a mystery than my barber’s.
“I went ahead and finished packing up in here,” she says. “Figured there wouldn’t be much you’d want.”
“Spot on.” I turn my gaze to our surroundings. The cabinets are white now, and the linoleum flooring has been replaced with ceramic tile. There are boxes here, too, presumably filled with cutlery, bubble-wrapped plates, and figurines of beagles that our father kept lined up along the countertops. The curtains for the window above the sink have been taken down and cast aside in a heap. I can see the moon beaming through the treetops outside.
I lean back in my chair and examine the glass in my hand. “The service went okay?”
Anne laughs, and I let myself smile in return. “Everyone was so old,” she says. “Some man from his Bible study group gave the most beautiful eulogy, like something straight from a movie. Had everyone in tears the entire time but called Dad the wrong name at the end.” Both of us are laughing now. “The wrong name, can you believe that?”
“I’m sorry I missed it,” I say. I picture Anne at the funeral, seated as she is now, with her legs crossed. Her son would’ve been beside her, almost six, with his hair slicked to one side, holding her hand. In the few pictures I’ve seen of him, on Christmas cards over the years, he is always animated and so I imagine him, smiling, unaware, as everyone around him weeps unattractively into handkerchiefs and coat sleeves.
We talk for a short while more about the ceremony and then, when Anne notices my wedding band, about David and how we came to know each other in Atlanta nearly eight years ago. I show her a picture taken of us in Spain, thinking all the while how strange it feels to speak so candidly of him beneath our father’s roof. I remember how, at this very table, I was told to leave and never return.
Anne takes my hands in hers and squeezes. Her fingertips are damp and cold from holding her drink. “Isn’t it funny,” she says, “how one tragedy can make everything suddenly seem so new? Like the other day. I was buying broccoli and thought to myself, this is the first time I’m buying broccoli since Dad died. All the times before that, he’d been alive, and it was normal to buy broccoli while he was alive, but now it will be normal to buy it when he’s dead.” She pulls her hands back and wipes her eyes. The record player, I now notice, has stopped playing and the room is painfully quiet. I wish I could cry alongside her to help fill in the silence, but when I realize I cannot, I stand instead and wrap my arms around her.
After a moment, Anne collects herself and downs the rest of her drink all at once. She has something to show me and takes me down the hall away from the kitchen. The bedroom doors have been left open, and I glance into them as we walk by. The beds all appear freshly made–decorative pillows lined up along the headboards, comforters smoothed down and free from any wrinkles–as if they’ve never been slept in. Anne stops before a linen closet next to the bathroom and presses her back up against it. Her shoulders drop, and when she turns to open the door, her movements are slow.
Inside, there are towels folded neatly on the shelves and more ceramic beagles that our father could not fit elsewhere. The smell is musty like old church robes, and there’s a cobweb swaying back and forth beneath the AC vent on the ceiling. Anne bends down and pulls something from underneath the bottom shelf and holds it out.
An inflatable pool sags in her arms, limp and lifeless though its bright colors have held. I remember summer days, the skin on my shoulders tight with heat, the smell of fresh grass clippings, our father spraying us down with the hose, the mist rebounding off our bodies making rainbows in the sunlight. I imagine Anne’s son in it more recently, much the same as we had been all those years ago.
“His breath is still in here,” she says. Her eyes well up again as she holds the mound of plastic up to me. I squeeze my fingers against it, feel the air moving around inside.
Notes from Guest Reader Brandon Wicks
A quiet and well-measured story, Jonathan D. Nixon’s ‘Our Father’ won me over with its ending image. It perfectly captures the subtle, desperately insignificant ways we re-see the world after losing a loved one.