Keith Stahl is currently an MFA candidate in the Syracuse University Creative Writing Program. His work has appeared in Notre Dame Review, Per Contra, The Madison Review, Ghost Town, Corium, Euphony, Your Impossible Voice, and Prick of the Spindle. He was nominated for a 2016 Pushcart Prize.
When Dad’s drinking we do cultural things. One time we visited the Calder exhibit. Dad fanned his museum map at mobiles to make them move. “They’re mobiles,” he said, “Calder meant them to move.” As guards wrestled Dad to the floor, he kept flapping his museum map like he was trying to shoo the guards away. But guards will not be shooed. It was the highlight of their week, having somebody to subdue.
When Dad’s not drinking he watches Hoarders. A salad bowl of beef fat carved from a roast is often nestled on his chest. He eats it. His chin shines with grease, like a dim old star in the lower-left corner of a Hertzsprung-Russell diagram. My Astronomy 101 professor once told me that I’m a bright hot star in the upper-left quadrant of that diagram. But I’m not sure where I’d place myself on my own life-track, much less that of a star.
When Dad’s not drinking but taking his medication he sounds like Santa. His eyes gloss and twinkle. Life is a 1950s sitcom — that opening scene where everybody’s happy, everything is fine. Even a little boring. Then some numbskull kid ruins it by putting too much detergent in the laundry, or making a bonehead business deal by buying the neighbor’s rusted old jalopy. Or smoking synthetics and flying off the roof.
When Dad’s drinking and taking his medication he sees things. Skinny men with top hats squeeze through vents. Swarming flies. Carl Sagan. When I try sitting on the couch, he says, “Carl’s sitting there. Get the flyswatter.” The skinny men are polite. A little scary, but polite. They wear bow ties.
I bring Dad the flyswatter.
When Dad’s drinking and taking his medication he cooks weird things at the restaurant we own — he owns. One time it was purple soup. “It’s supposed to be purple,” he said. But everybody was like, “What kind of soup?”
When Dad’s drinking and taking his medication he mows the lawn weird. Like a barcode, a message to aliens: Take me to your leader.
Dad’s mowed the lawn weird.
I’m out here with Mom’s old loppers, serving penance for dropping out of college (this, and I have to work the restaurant until I find a real job). Dad’s raking up grass clippings. People in our neighborhood don’t mow their lawns until cited by the City, much less rake up grass clippings. The only time Dad rakes up grass clippings is when he’s drinking and taking his medication. He spray-paints Kokopelli on lawn bags.
I ask Dad if they still have that meeting in the gazebo on Sundays.
“I don’t know,” he says.
When I was three or four, AA and NA and Al-Anon were my Chuck E. Cheeses, my Discovery Zones, my DZs. Church basements with tiny play areas. Fake phones and secondhand building blocks, colored balls so scuffed and scratched it was hard to tell blue from green, red from orange — whites were yellow and yellows were white — everything fading. I would sidle up to Mom or Dad, crane my neck to whisper, “Can I have another cookie?” It was always, “Yes” (a nodded yes, if somebody was crying). It wasn’t until third grade that I realized nobody else in my class knew the Twelve Steps.
“That gazebo meeting was cool,” I say. “An island in the middle of a lake, in the middle of a park, in the middle of a city, in the middle of a planet, in the middle of the universe. I’ll finish here if you want to go . . . ”
“The universe has no middle.”
A couple weeks ago, Dad got into my astronomy book. I found him on the porch, absorbed in spectral lines.
“Can I borrow this book?” he asked.
“You can have it.”
“The universe is expanding,” he said. “Not stuff in the universe, but space between stuff. The vacuum, the nothingness. Galaxies and nebula and dark matter, they’re all kind of stuck to the nothingness like letters on a birthday balloon. The balloon expands, and the letters — things — move farther and farther away.”
He showed me a picture.
H - A - P - P - Y B - I - R - T - H - D - A - Y.
“I know, Dad.”
It’s hard to tell weeds from not-weeds. The shit-maple, Dad calls it, tangles with rhododendron, honeysuckle — whatever this flowery thing is — and it’s my job to decapitate the baby trees. But I get it wrong, again and again.
Dad comes over in a huff. “These aren’t weeds. These are weeds.”
My eyes tear from paint fumes.
Dad tangles with severed branches and finds a bird's nest.
“There’s a note!” he says.
But there really is a note. The bird’s nest is twigs and grass and leaves, but it’s also garbage — shredded plastic Rite Aid bag, pink scrunchy, McDonald’s wrapper, note. The note is embedded in smooth, bird-packed mud. The corner of the note peeks out like a fortune cookie. The word no.
Dad hovers over the nest like a Nativity scene. He wants to know what the rest of the note says.
But I know what the note says — or said, before I tore it up.
“Don’t touch it,” I say. “Bird flu.”