I pushed through the main doors and out into the cold night air, even my bones crying. Christmas just isn’t for the dying, I heard my father say. I turned and faced him on the swing seat. His eyes and cheeks were red but he was smiling. I hate watching him try to have fun, I said. He’s exhausting himself for Mom’s benefit. It’s fucking sad.
My father sat forward and gave me a brown paper package. He was never one for extravagance—being a mill flunky, being the eldest son of a broad-chested farmer with bricks for fists and a liver like a 1970 Dodge Charger. My grandfather died spitting at God and my father didn’t have the heart to tell him there’s really no one to be angry with. When my father told me this I told him I think that’s romantic and he sighed and cracked open another beer.
Don’t just stare at it, bean-head, my father said. Open it. I tore off the paper. It was a miniature cherry wood chest, probably meant for jewelry or any illicit stash he assumed I was keeping. That’s sweet, I whispered, pressing my palm against it. Still a little warm. He shoved my shoulder. Go on, open it. I opened the chest. There were a dozen truffles wrapped in plastic. I pulled one out and held it up in the night light. We dressed it in foggy breath. Those are laced, so be careful. He nudged my shoulder again and chuckled, like he’d just told a dirty joke. His laugh had always been like that, drenched in mischief. I dropped the truffle in my mouth and sucked, letting it dissolve on my tongue. Pot, no doubt. Thanks Dad, I said. I tossed him one.
The thing about my brother dying was that we each changed and his disposition stayed about the same. He was more soft-spoken, maybe. More fatigued. His normally rare smile would echo around rooms. We tried to hold onto each one, let it buoy us, more than before. His body subtracted from itself enough that he looked like a carnival of bone wrapped in wax paper. He was still strong enough to take walks then, and he did, around our neighborhood with headphones on. He remained popular, studious, gracious. He made me look bad, I’ll admit. But I was fine with it. I was fine letting him be our family’s own personal Jesus. I could have sat at his feet and listened to him play his battered guitar into eternity.
Your mother, my father started then faltered. Your mother wants our lives to be normal. I let her chase whatever she thinks normal is because she’s my woman. And my woman can do whatever the hell she wants, understand? He lit a cigarette and watched me.
I looked at all our cars in the driveway. My father’s all-terrain Jeep, my mother’s late ‘90s Honda, my own battleax of a Buick. My boyfriend Drew’s black F-150. My brother sold his car for a massive flat screen. When I asked him why he said, I’m prioritizing.
I closed my eyes and waited for the buzz to kick in. I shoved my face into the crook of my father’s neck. He didn’t say anything when I cried and I was thankful. Last week, he asked me to keep our last name. Sure Dad, I managed to say. Now I’m the ascendant heir of the family. When we were little my brother would lord his station over me. I’m gonna be the man of the house, he teased one day. I tackled him and held his arms down. You’re just gonna be a mommy! We talked about that day this morning. In retrospect, I totally deserved that rug burn, he said. For the first time in days, he laughed without gasping. I almost started crying, but I didn’t want to ruin it. Everything is delicate. Any moment something can shatter and you spend the next several months adjusting to your shiny new life.
Grace, my father said after a few minutes, maybe more. My heart was too swollen for that, hearing my own name. Grace, he said again, bringing my face to meet his. Open it. I took out the package of truffles, found a tiny trap door. I pulled the hatch. Inside was a pair of dried yellow roses, just the bulbs, torn forever from their stems. I could hear my mother, brother, and boyfriend singing Chestnuts Roasting on an Open Fire. I could hear my own blood bumping. I could almost feel my father’s heart chuckling. And somehow I was happy, being anchored there. I wanted to fashion the stars into a ladder and kiss the moon. I love you, I heard my mother croon. My brother laughed. I know Mom. I love you too.
The first line of this story is the last line of Ethel Rohan’s Flight, which appeared in Guernica, here.