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.”
“But it’s a sign.”
When Dad’s drinking and taking his medication he finds “signs.” Golf balls in the woods behind golf courses, mason jars of rhubarb preserves from 1967 in basements, notes in bird’s nests.
“This is going in my shrine.”
I don’t know what the shrine is. The shrine is new.
Before I can stop him, distract him, crush the nest with one fell stomp, he reverently peels the note from bird-mud.
Thank God, I tore it up good!
Dad’s eyes are wet honeysuckles, puffy-red and drippy. He reaches to show me the note.
“I can see it,” I say. “I think that gazebo meeting might be starting.”
I gather yard waste — Dad’s spray paint, shears, loppers, rake. All the garden stuff was Mom’s.
“We have to find the rest of the note,” Dad says. “It’s torn, see? no God isn’t all there is.”
He buries himself in hedges, searches for more nests.
I should get to the note scraps before he does. Burn them. When I was a kid I’d lie awake in bed at night, figure ways to make it home from school to remove bills from the mailbox before Dad found them. He drank more when the bills came. He drank and took medication more when the Mets lost. He drank less and took medication more when I did well in school. He didn’t do anything more during the month of August. I had Dad down to a science.
In Alateen they say that’s codependence. They say I worry too much about Dad. Like, it’s ridiculous he doesn’t know I’m gay. But he’s just not ready. He gets mad at Modern Family, fumes at the gay couple with the Asian kid, and I’m like, “Dad, isn’t Hoarders on?” One time we were at the mall, and there were these graphic novels with transgender superheroes. Dad was like, “Are those . . . testicles?” Then he launched this diatribe about artists who sell out and draw pornographic comic books.
Dad wishes he were an artist, an intellectual, anything but a restauranteur. He uses restauranteur to insult himself, usually when he’s not drinking and not taking his medication, but also sometimes when he’s just drinking. “Don’t make the same mistakes I made, or you’ll end up a restauranteur.” It’s like he’s prophesying.
To think that somehow birds plucked every scrap of that torn-up note from the garbage, scattered my secret throughout this yard (but not the neighbor’s yard, not some tree over on Dodge Street), and that Dad’s going to just come along and piece it all together — I have taken my father’s anxiety, obsession, and general ridiculousness and embraced it as my own. Codependence. I need to “detach with love.” I need to breathe.
So I breathe.
“I found another nest!” Dad cries.
Sparrows flee from bushes.
“you, it says!”
“Dad, you should get to that meeting.”
He calls from under the porch: “You go ahead.”
A woodchuck wriggles through a hole in the slats, wobbles for its life across the yard.
“No nests,” Dad says. “But, hey!”
Dad emerges, mud and fur and a little blood.
“call,” he says. “you call no God. But the pieces don’t fit. It’s gotta be: no God call you — but look! This side is glossy, like a business card, and no God is all professional. The . . . what is it?”
“Yeah, yeah. Professional font. It’s a business card, with a note on the back.”
“Yeah, Dad. It’s probably just somebody’s business card with a note on the back.”
But Dad is off. The quest is on. His eyes look towards Heaven.
I go inside and turn on the Mets, try to drown out Dad’s ladder clanking against the gutters. Now he’s on the roof, in the eaves. No matter which room I pace into, Dad’s outside the window.
It gets dark, thank God, and Dad comes inside. He sprinkles bits of note, bits of business card, all over the counter. He shuffles them like puzzle-pieces, gloss-side up, gloss-side down, his fingers scraped and trembling.
A glossy phone number. “Should we call it?”
“Dad, it’s not all there.”
He’s found an eye. Bushy eyebrow. Dad looks at me like he’s found the missing link. But he’s missing half the pieces, and nothing makes sense.
I double-check that nothing makes sense when Dad is in the bathroom.
Dad’s gathered mostly blanks, thank God.
I leave the note-bits out there, in the kitchen, and go to bed. I’d rather not have to explain why I burned them or swallowed them.
“I own the restaurant,” Dad says. “The restaurant doesn’t own me.”
Dad’s proclaimed a snow day. It’s June 6th. The sun is shining for the first time in weeks. But Dad drove to the restaurant this morning and hung Snow Day on the door, his version of Gone Fishin’ — which is probably better than Searching For Note-Bits. It’s me who will have to answer to disgruntled customers when, if — we, he — reopens. I am the explainer. I am the apologist.
I’m in the kitchen at home and Dad clomps in, cradling thousands of dollars in shredded twenty-dollar bills. The worthless money snakes through his fingers. It’s like he’s holding a green Medusa-head.
“The mice made a nest of the cash stash,” he says.
Dad snows the cash stash — years of restaurant profit hidden away from the IRS in our basement — onto the kitchen table.
A mouse turd splashes into my Cocoa Krispies.
I abandon my breakfast, but Dad is beaming. He’s discovered three more note-bits.
“How much is lost?”
“The mice didn’t get it all,” Dad says. “But they would have, had it not been for the note!”
“I wouldn’t have known mice are chewing the money, if I hadn’t been looking for pieces of the note!”
“So maybe the note was a sign,” I tell him. “Now you can take an early nap. Did you even sleep last night?”
“Look what I found: The glossy side is a guy wearing a cloak or a robe, like something a king wears. Or someone religious. Just his torso, his chest. I don’t have his face, yet.”
“Let me see that.”
“This is a picture of God, maybe.”
“God wears a bow tie, apparently.”
“And the other side’s I love you. I miss you. Call me. I need the other pieces. The rest of the phone number. A name. This piece here.”
Dad points to where Professor Reno Godfrey’s nose, mustache, mouth, and left eye should be — glossy side.
It’s just a matter of time before he finds the rest of the pieces, and on the flip-side of the missing phone number, just before I love you. I miss you. Call me — the name Wade is written.
I am Wade, son of Dad.
I am fucked.
“Come on, Dad. I really doubt God sent you His business card.”
“There’s no other way to explain it.”
“Why did He tear it up?”
“It’s a test,” Dad says. “God’s always testing, testing, testing.”
Last fall I was secretly twisted about having received a one-hundred on my astronomy test. The perfect score meant I wouldn’t be required to attend Professor Godfrey’s office hours. The man’s a superstar. Mr. Astronomy. Led Zeppelin blasts from the podium before every lecture, his hair frantic from head-banging “Stairway to Heaven.” Impeccably dressed in trim-fit suit and silk bow tie, he is the most articulate man I’ve ever met. Author of textbooks. Interviewed by Time. He is the binary opposite to Dad. Professor Reno Godfrey is about as far away from restauranteur as the galaxy MACS0647-JD is from Earth. So when the professor announced that anyone in the class could stop by to chat, I tingled. That microsecond of lingering eye contact. Professor Godfrey was talking to me.
Office hours were like therapy sessions. Something about Reno made me unload. About Dad. About losing Mom. About how everybody around me has their shit together — majors, minors, this track, that track. My embarrassment at being Liberal Arts.
But my essay on dark matter made Reno think. My energy was rekindling his waning astronomical passion. I was invited to the observatory to find Andromeda. I was invited to the observatory for Hunter’s Moon. I was invited to Reno’s house to observe the conjunction of Venus and Jupiter just before sunrise.
That’s when he called me a bright hot star in the upper-left quadrant of a Hertzsprung-Russell diagram.
And we kissed.
He wanted me, needed me, would risk it all for the two of us.
When he whisked me off to Saint Martin for spring break, it felt like I was cheating on Dad. But I couldn’t resist being with a man who wasn’t continually saying, Don’t make the same mistakes I made.
Dad finds Reno’s face. It’s been tucked into a squirrel’s nest in the knot of the big maple out back.
“This is a picture of the guy in your astronomy book!” Dad says. “Is this your professor? Do you know him?”
“No,” I say. “My professor was different.”
In Saint Martin, Reno knew all the bars. We ended up on a beach one night with this dude, a stranger, a kid my age. We were stoned.
I guess because of the stars and Reno being a professor, the kid started babbling about some Facebook meme he had read. “Gravitational waves are distorting spacetime,” he said.
I told him gravitational waves come from binaries — orbiting bodies in space that spin together really, really fast — 6.71 times ten to the eighth power.
“We didn’t even know they existed until like last year,” he said.
“Because they’re so small,” I told him. “Ten to the negative eighteenth.”
“And right this second,” he said, “gravitational waves are mutating our DNA.”
Even though everybody knows it’s cosmic waves that might have some effect on deoxyribonucleic acid, and that cosmic waves and gravitational waves are basically apples and oranges, the great Professor Reno Godfrey goes, “God knows what into. Into what God knows.”
Nothing but the whoosh of waves.
And then the great Professor Reno Godfrey goes, “Wow.”
“Makes me feel insignificant,” the kid said.
That’s when Reno puts his arm around him, looked into his eyes and said: “You really make me think. So much energy. You’re rekindling my own passion for astronomy. You’re like a bright hot star in the upper-left quadrant of a Hertzsprung-Russell diagram.”
I looked at Reno. Reno looked at me — like, What?
He obviously didn’t remember.
I was just one of probably a long line of Professor Reno Godfrey’s undergraduate experiments.
I would have broken it off right there, but Reno had my plane ticket. Once we got back to the States, I dropped off the face of the earth.
Tonight is Doppler Night.
Themed dinners once a month: Italian Night, Mardi-Gras, “Silence of the Lamb.”
The restaurant is booked (which isn’t saying much because we only seat thirty-six). But if we turn over even once, that’s seventy-two. Seventy-two covers is a lot for one solo chef. Not to call Dad a chef — at least, officially. When customers ask (it’s an open kitchen) what culinary school he went to, Dad laughs and says he’s in the foodservice industry because he dropped out of college (three times).
“Do people really go to school for this?” he asks.
To the kids he says, “Don’t make the same mistakes I made.”
I know all his lines. It’s like he’s performing.
Dad’s got me wrapping scallops with bacon. Ninety-nine scallops with bacon to wrap / Ninety-nine scallops with bacon / Pick one up / Wrap it up / Ninety-eight scallops with bacon to wrap . . .
These scallops represent spiral galaxies.
This is going to be a long night.