by Eileen Tomarchio
After ghosting me since summer, my father asks if I can see my way clear to perhaps lending him a few hundred dollars for Christmas expenses. That’s the phrasing of his text. See your way clear. Perhaps. A figure spelled out. Dollars instead of bucks. And at the end, You’re the last of the angels, an inch below the rest, dangling there for emphasis or in embarrassment or by accident, I can’t tell which.
I wonder if his cell’s been stolen. He’s never sent a text like this. Never called it lending or specified an amount. Our typical exchange goes:
Whatever you got.
No supplication. No prolonging. Once, he replied to my question How much? with You have to ask every time? I was so galled I almost answered Fuck, yes. Instead I transferred a hundred dollars, proud of myself for so handily masquerading conflict aversion as passive aggression. His requests for handouts became my way of keeping tabs on him, even though I was paying off two student loans on a postdoc researcher’s stipend. I wasn’t too upset I had to take on more test prep clients, eat in a lot of Saturdays, miss Thursday happy hours with the lab. I kept my excuses for skipping out brief. I liked having something to withhold.
For a time, he and I were down to a stony cipher.
I assumed the more sparse our language, the more desperate his circumstances. I don’t know where Christmas expenses is coming from this time. It reads like a cozy feint, a suggestion of some vast, nagging pinochle crew or a replacement tribe of a girlfriend and her kids and her kids’ kids, which is both hilarious and not because I’m thinking it’s a red flag. The whole text, actually. A sign his want is progressing, distorting. How else to explain the taciturn lone wolf turned suddenly windy and expansive, like a late-in-life sun in its red giant phase before contracting? The warm fuzzies hiding a newfound dread just underneath? For the rest of the night, I go crazy parsing what might be heritable, what might pass from father to daughter and what wouldn’t necessarily. I suppose I could chat with the genomics lab head down the hall about the current thinking.
Most likely, Christmas expenses is a catch-all for shit he needs but can’t bring himself to list. A grabber stick. Compression socks. Perineal ointment. I don’t have to wonder how much of what I give him goes toward necessities and how much to feeding his habit. He was always a contradiction, a reckless tightwad. He’d prowl hotel and airport bars, making high-dollar bets with strangers on how long it took a cockroach to race the sticky distance from his rail drink to their top-shelf, chowing on free pub mix and pickled eggs for dinner. I remember him coming home after weekends away, winking at me, saying, “The house thinks it’s got an edge on me, kiddles, but they got it backwards.” I’d wink back.
A few years ago, after multiple myeloma killed my mom and our house was foreclosed, he lost everything in some sports prop bets and ended up in a grubby Section 202 single-bedroom. Any edge left in his life was the kind that bruised hip bones and required foam bumpers. There were periods I could have fronted him more than I gave so that he wouldn’t have to ask as often, but I never did. His degradation was satisfying. I waited for the moment he’d realize I felt this way, because I believed in that moment he’d see how he’d lost his edge and finally change for good. I’m pretty sure the moment came and went without me noticing and without him changing. And so I’ve had no reason for charity but charity itself. Which feels like my own degradation.
“Do something for me,” my mother said before she went. She could barely shape words, her tongue was so swollen. “Cut your dad a break. Promise me.”
I had something to tell her. Not a promise but a deathbed confession, one on the mildly cruel and self-indulgent end of the spectrum. A memory of a school night in January around my ninth birthday. Me, hunkered alone behind an armchair that was never sat upon, next to the fireplace that was never used, in the living room where the lamps were never turned on, doing division problems by flashlight, guarding the few remaining Hummel figures from Mom’s collection. The starry-lashed waifs had been vanishing from the bookshelf one by one. Waking from accidental sleep to a soft, pneumatic hiss that I registered as whispers. Everything dark but for a swirling knob of green light inches above the carpet. Making out the form of Dad on his knees, steam mushrooming as he worked an iron over a bath towel. Puzzled as to why Mom hadn’t pressed his shirt for work the next day, like she always did. The sad perversity of him doing it now, in the dark, on the floor.
The iron propped and spent, its setting light dimming red, an envelope there on the towel instead of a shirt, flaccid and sacrificial. Dad’s skittery data-entry fingers peeling apart the mucilage, pulling loose the insides. A birthday card from my uncle, my mom’s favorite brother, who’d made a fortune flipping properties in Avalon and had given me a stiff hundred dollar bill every birthday since I was three. A card I imagined was signed like all his others, with a lovingly imperious Uncle Fred.
A sleight-of-hand slip of the bill into a pocket, the spark of the pulled plug. Dad’s faceless imprint on the air as he returned the card to the envelope, closed the seal, fanned the envelope’s seam to dessicate the crime. Praying he wouldn’t reach for my favorite Hummel friend, the one with the lowest book value according to my mother, the Little Sweeper Girl who never smiled and who whispered to me as I shut my eyes and clamped my lips and squeezed my knees together against the urge to pee until I wet myself.
Come sweep with me, Laura, sweep, sweep, so we can cry tears on the ashes and watch what grows.
I never said a word about what I saw. Not when the time came to open Uncle Fred’s empty card, my hands tacky with bisque paint and ice cream cake. Not after Mom stopped speaking to her brother, calling him a fucking cheapskate, bitching about working two jobs while he was lounging on his Sea Ray cruiser brushing cigar ashes off the real estate pages, beating her breast over whatever indeterminate offense had made him so ungenerous with his niece. Not when my tenth birthday arrived without even a card from Uncle Fred, or when Mom got Aunt Peg to casually inquire in case his card got lost in the mail, or when Aunt Peg relayed with glee that he was still royally pissed he’d never gotten a thank you for the previous year’s gift and offered her own commentary on the spoiledness of kids, especially onlies. Not when Mom confronted Dad, more angry at herself for having been so slow on the uptake than at him for what she realized he’d done.
I said nothing because I was glad he’d taken the money, glad my uncle’s card had distracted Dad and spared my Little Sweeperfriend. From that night on, I tried to make her invisible, scooching her behind the chipped Belleek vases, the tarnished Indian chief bookends, the other low-value Hummels until they, too, were gone. Then I hid her in my dresser drawer, away from my father’s compulsive hands, my mother’s willful blindness. My Little Sweeper friend slumbered there through the limbo of their separation, Mom’s refusal to divorce, the winnowing of home and connection, the craved escape of school and learning, until one day Mom found her while clearing out my room and donated her to the Lions Club for their yearly white elephant. She’d belong to someone else now, bought for ten bucks, maybe five or two. I’d only bought her time, but for my own purpose. Just to have something to withhold.
“Promise me,” Mom insisted again. She was weightless in her hospital bed, tethered by a raccoon-eye stare. Pink blotches stained her gown that I hoped were only cherry jello. My confession was there on the edge, ready for the fulsome nudge of my adult-child sense of grievance. But something stopped me. I could hear too loudly what the bloat in my mother’s mouth wouldn’t let her say. Her spiel had always begun with the exonerating mythology of my father’s origins—fifth of nine raised in a Bayonne Box, ignored by sisters and taunted by brothers, slapped around by a father who’d stolen his newspaper route money to pay bookie debts—and ended with the romance of Dad’s self-defeat. This time, she’d add plenty about how hard-hearted I was.
So I deflected. Rambled about my drosophila, their odd existences. Gassed under the scope, the fruit flies’ stained-glass wings suspended, hairy ballerina legs limp, heads aswim with pungent fruit bowls. Then awakened from their hundred-year sleep by the kiss of fluorescent beams, returned to their vials to feast and lay eggs, none the wiser. I told her how they depended on us, how every eight hours we had to separate the females from the males to keep them virginal and maintain the accuracy of our gene crosses. How we pushed them around using little feathers taped to pencil ends like brooms.
This made her chuckle. “Least they don’t hold it against you,” she said.
I spend an hour on different replies. It’s taking longer than it should.
Lend? I’ll hold you to it
Buy something nice for yourself
Leave me alone
Hey, remember that church white elephant and peach festival you took me to one time? We had peach everything? Pie, ice cream, cobbler, buckle, betty? You bought a tie and dress jacket for yourself, a rock tumbler kit for me missing most of the rocks? We dared each other to end every sentence the rest of the day with PEACH and you punched the car roof like Rocky when I lost before we got home? You told me I owed you 50¢. You prob don’t remember. That’s ok. You said that day was the most fun you ever had for 32 bucks.
I delete them all.
In bed, I watch the windowpane creep with frost. A streetlight glows a blurred yellow. I imagine he regrets calling me the last of the angels in his text. I imagine he knew I was there with the Hummels, that I hid my Little Sweeper Girl from him. I imagine he’s fronting me what gratitude he’s got because he knows that soon I’ll have to give him what he can no longer think to ask for, and charity is hardly the word for it. Or else I’m wrong, dead wrong, and the text is all sarcasm, nothing else.
I could parse all night and not get any closer.
By morning, I decide: I’ll ghost him back. Leave him a blank space stretching from the now to whatever oblivion awaits him, long enough to call what’s between us a push, a draw. Maybe the worst that can happen would be the best. And maybe years from now, I’ll forget everything, too. My own distortions. More things hidden in drawers. The sweeping I left undone, the ashes I couldn’t water, the girl I’m still learning how to value.
Published April 14th, 2019
Eileen Tomarchio is a librarian and fiction writer from New Jersey. Her work has appeared at Barrelhouse Online and GrubWriters blog. She holds an MFA in directing and screenwriting from NYU Film School. You can find her on Twitter at @eileentomarchio and on Instagram at @gondaline26.
Hiram Powers' career began with his employment at a museum of mechanical wax figures in Cincinnati, Ohio. Powers' wax figures were so lifelike that women are said to have fainted. Modeling figures in wax led to his decision to become a sculptor, and with the support of patron Nicholas Longworth, Powers' career flourished. Longworth sponsored Powers' trip to Washington, DC, where the young artist made his reputation with a marble bust of Andrew Jackson (1835, The Metropolitan Museum of Art). This work was much admired for its realism, and Powers received commissions to portray many other public figures. Andrew Jackson, John Quincy Adams, and Daniel Webster were among the famous American statesmen whose portraits he modeled.
Powers was one of the most successful and highly regarded American sculptors of the nineteenth century. From the 1830s on, several American sculptors achieved international fame; Powers stood out among them with his talent for creating both portraits in marble and images of classical purity.