The tattoo of the faded blue comic book woman on my father's freckled shoulder watches me pick at the edges of the dark charcoal painted kitchen table. There is a small finger-sized gap between the sheet of glass and the edge of the table. Beneath that smudged, streaked glass, there are shards of a shattered mirror arranged, glazed, and staring up at me to make up our kitchen table. It had been a while since we cleaned beneath the glass, crumbs of food slipping and making my father’s functional artwork a lot more meaningless now -- the curling of slim rotting vegetables and the bottom of the bag Doritos are dusting the mirrors and table cracks now. In between, there are crumbs and tiny hairs. I always picked what I could out with the tips of my fingers. That was today's afternoon task.
I look back up at my father's right shoulder. Blue ink fades onto tight freckled shoulders. There is a woman there, her fingers posed across her face. I always thought she looked like my mother, that was the family joke anyway, wrapped up in this fading tattoo of 17, 18, whatever age he thought he needed it when he'd met her. I felt a humor in knowing my parents did not last and yet, she was there, a cartoon version of my mother, as he spiced some afternoon rice in weekend boxers and the shape of a father figure's beginnings. I always found my mother in this comic book girl on lazy weekend afternoons.
If the radio was on, I knew he was happy. If a cigarette was in his mouth, behind his ear, or balancing in the chipped glass ash tray, I knew that he was moving, going, thinking. Today there were both -- a crisp cigarette tucked atop his ear in wait while his dad's favorite songs hummed atop the greasy countertop next to moldy bread from other careless nighttime dinners.
I used to study his old photos, magnify how much like a tree trunk my father was -- no edges, no curves, just straight up to a goofy boy with freckles, red hair, and giant ears. He was young then, young enough to still have a litter of pimples across his forehead, and young enough to think the world was his. He still is young, really, but I don't think he rules anything but this house anymore.
I look at the pictures of my parents before me and hardly recognize them, but maybe it's because I guess that's what their love's supposed to have looked like. I brush that thought and the crumbs off my fingers. It is too black and white.
I noticed having a young dad in the circles we had – church, school, the neighbors. I never thought it was a problem, but can still trace anger in my grandmother's cracking voice when she retorts "cause his brains not fully developed" and watch as she rolls her eyes, marches away to smoke her own cigarettes in hiding.
It is a late and lazy weekend breakfast. I am picking the crumbs from our table. I think now that no one ever made me feel like a mistake. I loved having a young dad. It meant we stayed up late, we crawled across the ground, and I saw him more than all the other kids. He worked part time jobs and his schedule was always when he wanted it. In many ways, he's a kid too. He laughs at fart jokes and listens to loud music. He pranks you in public and dances in Dairy Queen lines. He talks to everyone he can, just to say hi. He stays in bed late and doesn't want to clean either. He didn't have a serious job. He'd just been fired from Applebee's for stealing the chocolate molten lava cakes. I think it was worth it. Years later, he tells me I don’t remember that memory correctly. I know that memory is fickle. I trust that some things are skewed. In spite of it all, I think all emotion behind memory is to be trusted. I chose to think he got fired for stealing them while I now I remember the restaurant’s boxes in our freezer. There is some vague truth in it all. Either way, I never regretted living differently.
He'd try construction, a butcher shop, a car dealership, pyramid schemes, scrapping, all sorts of jobs that spread him away from art and us and home. I think the jobs are breaking him now. I bragged to the kids at school that my dad was an artist, but our dining room table, his project was falling apart and I didn't know how to fix it. It was beautiful, neurotic, shards of glass reflecting back up while you chewed thick burgers in the winter early evening. Dad never fixed it.
No one ever came over, except for my dad's friends or their kids. No one from school had playdates, none of the moms and dads came over for coffee or birthday parties, and I always thought it was because our home was messy. A simple shame in living poor and dirty. Your world is always smaller than you think it is.
But now, I think it's because this loose man was too young, the growing sleeve of tattoos on his left arm that we don't talk about singles him out. He’s just a child compared to the parents of my classmates. Grandma said those tattoos would ruin his life, but I know that I, his first born, might have too so I love to watch the sleeve grow.
His back is still to me. He is just getting done with a breakup in the basement of my grandma's house to a girl with pretty red hair and a young face like his. I liked her. She sat with me at church that day, but that night, he'd taken her downstairs to talk. I snuck down the stairs, sat right before the door to listen, close enough I could run and escape his view if they came towards me. He broke up with her because of me, but he doesn't know that I know. "You can't be around my kids with that in your system." I didn't know what "that" was, but she was gone and here he was in the kitchen somewhere between happy and preoccupied a couple days later.
I know she's not coming back now either. There's a fat lazy cat sitting by the window, my brother is watching a scary movie he shouldn’t, and I watch my dad. "This is grandpa Bob's favorite song," he says. I don't know that much about Grandpa Bob, but I know my dad loves him, so I listen and tell him I like it too. Food is ready, there's a glass of V8 in front of me and a plate with worn and faded McDonald's characters. Too many knives cutting steaks and chicken have erased the bandit's face; I cover him in sauce and we eat. My brother does not come, my father does not care, and there is silence in the curly q's of his chest as he eats and stares at a too blue vase of fake flowers.
It is hard not to think of my missing mother. She is tensing upon my father’s back. She is here, even though she has not been. There was a moment I realized my mother wasn’t coming back. But it wouldn’t come to me for years. My mother stopped writing me and I realized she wasn't leaving Michigan for me. It was always going to be just us. I used to think my mother would come back, even thought that I could orchestrate a parent trap and get them to fall in love again. I had seen the pictures, I knew they used to love each other. No one loves each other like that anymore, I think. I tried real hard at my aunt's wedding, watched my parents dance, held my fingers crossed behind my back and prayed to God in the middle of the dance floor, begging for my parents’ happiness. My sister said mom was single; I told her dad was too. Things lined up. They danced for a second, my mom in her blue dress and long hair and my dad with his only good tie and new efforts at facial hair and they danced slow. It felt right. I felt hope. We watched the entire song. I cried the next day when we took a plane home and told my grandma how they danced. She saw it too, she said. They used to look at each other like that a long time ago, but it was unrealistic of me to expect anything to happen. Unrealistic, she said.
When mom left, when his girlfriend left, when the pretty redhead left, it was just us. I almost preferred it. The best moments with my father were lazy days when he was lonely. I tell him, years later, I loved you most when you were single.
I wonder now what happened to the table. I vaguely hold onto the memory of it failing, too many crumbs to save it now. My father was an artist; I hold onto this even though we probably threw it away. Your world grows; I hope someone salvaged it.
-- Kalie Johnson is a 25 year old living near Cleveland, Ohio working as a garden coordinator for residential foster care organizations. She has been previously published with The Watershed Review, Fatal Flaws Literary Magazine, The Bookends Review, Coffin Bell Journal, Quillkeepers Press, and Thirteen Bridges Review. When she’s not writing, she enjoys traveling, hiking, and gardening!