For the third straight night, my father drifts into my bedroom and asks if I want popcorn—popcorn is his main obsession since he returned, though I never saw him eat it during his life—and each night I tell him no, pleasepleaseplease leave me alone, but he just hovers there, semi-translucent in the moonlight like some kind of Scooby Doo ghost, and says he’s going to make popcorn the right way—on the stove with oil and salt, none of that microwavable pouch bullshit—and finally I snap and tell him I don’t want any goddamn popcorn, not from a dead man, at least, to which he says, “I’ve seen dead, son-o’-mine, and this ain’t it.”
I ask him to place his hand on his heart and tell me what he feels.
“I don’t feel anything,” he says, confused.
I admit I’m being callous. No doubt this is difficult for him, too. But I’m tired, emotionally wrung-out, and unsettled by the fact that what started as sheer horror—Dad, six months dead, floating through my wall one night to harass me about popcorn—is beginning to feel like routine. Plus, I have work in less than four hours: I need to make breakfast at Camp Winnipesaukee for a horde of shrieking pubescent children whose parents have paid exorbitant sums to have their spawn “live” in the woods.
Frankly, I don’t have time for this whole Dead-Dad-Wants-Popcorn rigmarole. I’m thirty years old. Divorced. Living in an apartment above a pizza joint I used to own. Every basic expectation I had for my life has transformed into something hideous. Like I planted a seed and waited for a daisy to grow—not even a rich daisy, or a famous daisy, but at the bare minimum a daisy—and instead a purple octopus crawled out of the dirt with big buck teeth and a tambourine clutched in each tentacle.
Floating there in my room with his ghost-hand on his ghost-heart, my father starts reciting the Pledge of Allegiance—he’s bound, I suppose, by a form of ghost-muscle memory—and I can’t help but laugh, it’s so over-the-top ridiculous. He drifts away.
“I’m sorry!” I call after him.
There’s no point pretending I can fall back to sleep. In the kitchen, he’s still muttering the Pledge, but he’s hiding now, and it takes me a minute to find him. He’s in the cupboard, shrunk down to the size of a banana, hover-sitting on a can of beef stew.
“I wanted to share some popcorn with my boy, that’s all,” he says, laying it on nice and syrup-thick.
“I know, I know,” I say.
I wonder what Lexi would think if she saw me now: standing in the kitchen in the middle of the night, talking to a miniature version of my dead father as he pouts inside a cupboard. Like he’s reading my mind, my father blurts, “How’s Lex? How’s the baby?” despite the fact that I moved out a year ago—he helped me load the truck—and the baby, well…but he’s all mixed up, like he has an otherworldly dementia. To change the subject, I say, “I don’t know about you, Dad, but I sure could go for some popcorn.”
He beams. He glides out of the cupboard and regains his normal size. “Don’t eat that stew,” he says. “It’s full of bacteria. I hear it scuttling around like a hundred spiders on a sheet of tinfoil.”
I drop the can into the trash. Then I heat some canola oil in a saucepan and pour in half a cup of kernels. Soon the kernels are pop-pop-popping, and with each pop my father grabs his gut like he’s been shot, and suddenly I remember him strutting around our old house with the TV remote clutched in his hand like a pistol, calling me “Pilgrim” in his weak imitation of John Wayne; I remember him putting a polished stone (a Tiger’s Eye) in his mouth at a gift shop in Franconia Notch State Park as though it were a butterscotch candy, making my brother and me laugh so hard we knocked over an entire rack of I MOOSE YOU THIS MUCH! T-shirts; I remember him handfeeding ice cubes to our cocker spaniel, Loop; remember him dusting picture frames with a pink rose; remember bits and pieces of the man he’d been before he heard bacteria inside cans of Dinty Moore.
The popcorn blooms in stuttering bursts. I’ve made too much. I pour it into a bowl, blizzard it with salt, shingle it with squares of butter, and sit on the counter. I eat handful after handful. The salt stings my gums. I spit unpopped kernels into the sink as though it’s a spittoon. “Pilgrim,” I say, crying a little. My father keeps reaching into the bowl, but he can’t grasp the popcorn. His hand washes right through it.
I eat it all.
Later, my father says, “I’ll be back soon.” I’m spread-eagle on the living room floor. I ask where he’s going, but he will not say. He grows to an enormous size, something he hasn’t done before, his legs downstairs in the pizza parlor, his head and shoulders disappearing through the roof. Galaxies of dust churn inside his pale, shimmery abdomen. He drifts outside. I stand and watch him go. He wanders through trees and houses like a wayward parade float. Lights blink on in windows. Dogs bark. I think about calling Lexi, or my brother, though of course I can’t—what would I say?—so instead I shower and get dressed and leave for Camp Winnipesaukee two hours early. The cabins are dark and quiet, and as I drive down the long dirt road I turn off my headlights, because I don’t want to wake these children, not yet, not until I have something warm to feed them.