I will not fall.
I am perched on a straight-backed kitchen chair, my hands clumsily thrust behind me. I raise my head so that the kitchen’s spotlights fill my eyes. I am fifteen. Outside, the sky is bone white and the trees are skeletal.
“Did I miss any lines?”
My father sits on our sagging couch and contemplates. His large, sweaty hands grip the copy of my assigned poem in a death grip. If I look close, I can see how the left is gnarled from the bullet that ripped through his skin. A gun had discharged while he was cleaning it. As a little girl, I imagined doctors rewiring the shooting blue veins under the skin, so he could write again. They took scalpel to flesh like a clumsy game of Operation. If I had looked even closer, I would have seen that the rewired hand was trembling.
“You did.” He leans really close, fumbles, and the paper floats down by his jutting knees. It’s as though his fists, shaking, are open like a sieve. He picks the sheet back up. “You missed an ‘s’ and—and—a word here.”
My legs are wooden. I carefully swing them over the kitchen bar and slowly descend from the highchair, like a jockey dismounting. Outside, the wind howls and howls.
“I keep messing it up.” I take the damp poem from him. “Shit.”
“Hey.” The authority in his voice shakes like his hands. He also gives me back the thick, rubber band-bound stack of flashcards. We have been alternatively studying, then reciting. “It’s only one word.”
This is the second year I’ve done this poetry recitation contest, and I am determined to make it to State’s. So I climb up on a chair to mimic the way my legs feel lanky and stiff on stage; I stare at the lightbulb so I am intentionally hot and blinded. For a moment, instead of being suspended on a chair, I am center-stage. I breathe through my diaphragm, trying to steady myself. I aim to project my voice across our apartment’s living room.
“You’re practicing too much.”
Later, I will forget the sound of his voice.
“No I don’t. Everyone else can just memorize their poems like that.” I snap my fingers and try not to look through the blinds. Outside, it is already growing dark. It’s December.
My father never mentions what he didn’t do in school. When he starts to drink, sometimes he will talk about being in the marching band. Portions of his life slide into focus for a moment. He tells me that when he moved to New Hampshire as a teenager, kids tried to befriend him because his dad owned the corner general store. They turned the basement into a boozy place of debauchery. He and his brother drove with a cooler of beer in the backseat. But he was actually friendless. Later, I won’t even remember the instrument he played.
“We should get going.” He stops, wipes his forehead. “You’re really good, you know?”
Madison is waiting for a collision.
She begins to watch me when we cross the border into New Hampshire. I fix my eyes on the sign, the jagged Old Man of the Mountain emblem embossed in black. She stares at the unmoving profile of my face, waiting. Trees blur by as I stomp on the gas pedal. It had been five years since the last time I had come here. I was with my father then.
We decided to take the next morning to make the two-hour drive up into the mountains. It is clear, the roads almost empty as I accelerate towards route 103.
“The speed limit is weird up here,” Madison says at some point. “It’s so slow.”
“It is.” I let the car coast. “But it is really nice weather right now.”
Luckily, she can’t see my eyes behind the sunglasses. We both suspect something awful happening at any moment. Instead, I feel eerily calm, like a voyeur in my own skin. I drink coffee from a paper cup and drum my fingers on the wheel idly. Madison doesn’t give up her hungry stare.
“Find me a grocery store.”
I tell her this as the car accelerates closer, the towns thinning out around us, dispersing into the woods. She doesn’t ask why. We both know why.
I eventually find a Haywards about two miles from our final destination. It’s a small supermarket here, the aisles crowded and claustrophobic. I fill my arms with yellow mums, trying to close myself off from their awful, sweet stench.
Sunapee is a lake town.
I remember when my grandmother still lived here. I think about my father at the wheel, white knuckled, until he came around the bend and we saw the lake. There are lodges and sleek boats and, in the winter, skiers. It is mountainous, arching up with steep hills that I could never imagine driving up iced over. Sunapee is also filled with its ghosts—an empty general store, a solitary road that seems to lead nowhere.
“That’s where my dad’s store was.” My father always pointed out the old brick building. “We used to make our own sausages and everything.” Now, Madison and I grow quiet. The car’s engine throbs.
When I was about nine, my father received a package with my grandfather’s pictures. They were from his tenure in the navy. I remember my father’s glassy eyes, the way he slit open the cardboard and held it close to his chest. The rattle of ice cubes in his drink as he cried. As we pass his old home, I recall what he said to me then:
“He died in the winter. I carried him out into the snow. I thought I could save him.”
I lost the poetry recitation contest.
A week later, for the term break, my father and I drove back up to New Hampshire to spend Christmas with my mother. The visit erupted with violence: hot words, little travel-sized bottles of vodka, my mother picking up a kitchen knife. What I remember most was the sensation of fleeing after.
My father drove hard and fast on the wet, midnight road. I slumped my shoulders in defeat, folding my arms across my chest. We didn’t talk much, although this would be the last opportunity to talk. In a few days, my father’s drinking would turn to hallucinations and a haunting depression. I would call my mother, afraid he would kill himself, possibly taking me with him. Later, there would be another, irrevocable separation. Later, there would be a restraining order. And then—
We didn’t know at the time we were on a precipice.
My father’s shoulders looked more stooped than normal. I watched the curve of his spine, the notch formed by his spina bifida. His mother drank while he was still in utero. I studied the set of his mouth, the crinkles around his eyes. When was the last time he smiled? He looked heavier than normal, which he was ashamed of.
“God, Kat.” He looked out at the highway, half his face obscured by shadow. “What a disaster. A shit show.”
It was strange, the relief he felt in talking with me. The alliances we made among one another: me and him, me and my mother, both of them against me. The points of the triangle always ended up at my throat.
“I told you this would happen.” I didn’t have finesse with words. My feelings of anger and disbelief were incomprehensible, guttural.
“It’s your mother.” My father said this as if this explained everything: you can’t reason with Ann. “It’s Christmas.”
I watched light, powdery snow drift in front of the car’s headlights. It’s possible that I
thought, at this moment, about the strange island of peace that came before: me standing on the chair, my father patiently checking my performance, the tree behind us that we had put up together. Or maybe I didn’t think of anything at all. Maybe I just vacantly watched the signs on the side of the road illuminate as we passed.
I can’t remember the next words I whispered when it happened, but I imagine it went something like this: “It just would have been nice if we could have avoided—stopped—all this.”
There was a heavy thump and the sound of spraying glass above us. My father cursed, jerking the wheel back. As the car swerved, I felt a scream built in my throat. I was pitched forward, the seat belt digging into my collarbone. For an incredible moment, I didn’t know what had happened. Had my father lost control of the car in the snow? Was there another vehicle somewhere, spinning into the darkness?
“Are you ok?”
My father’s eyes were everywhere, trying to discern what had happened. And then, my heart still hammering in my chest, it dawned on me. We had just passed under a gritty, dark interstate overpass. Someone had, unbelievably, pitched a rock into the darkness below. Had the sunroof been unrolled, as my father usually wanted when he got overheated, one of us would have been dead. This was an irrefutable fact. I tried to imagine the size of the rock or the crunch of the glass on the road behind us. It left me with an assailing feeling of dread.
“Yeah, yeah, yeah.” I stopped, realized I hadn’t been making any sense. “I’m fine.”
My father kept driving. He ended up pulling over when he had reached a Walmart. “Be careful of the glass,” he said, binding a tarp over the jagged hole. “It’ll cut deep.”
I look at the stone angels for some direction.
We had reached the summit of the long, climbing hill: a flat expanse on either side of the road that was a sweep of flowers and marble and green grass. I had made the executive decision to pull over to one side and park. Now, we don’t know what to do next.
“What was the name again?” Maddy asks. She is unsmiling, stealing glances at me every now and then. I watch the caretaker on the other side of the road and give him a wave. He gives me a polite smile.
Madison falls beside me like an older sister would, although we are the same age. There really was no one else I could have asked to make the long drive with me. We wade through the long grass at an easy pace. The small of my back is already damp with sweat; I can feel it rolling down the sides of my ribs. Maddy keeps waving away the incessant bugs.
“It’s got to be here somewhere.” I mostly say this to myself.
“Is there some sort of organization?” Madison asks. She pauses beside a very small marker wedged in the earth. I can’t really read the name in the stone, but I can see an image of a baby carved there. There’s a stiff array of flowers, bound in pink ribbon.
“I don’t really know.” I stop and cup my hands around my eyes. “I did look it up. He’s here. Somewhere.”
Everywhere, clouds of gnats rise up in tremendous waves. They are intrusive: crawling into my eyelashes, the spaces between my fingers, my open mouth. Madison is more susceptible to them; I keep seeing her twitch beside me when she pauses to read inscriptions, fighting to not itch and swat, swat and itch. It’s almost comical, because the bugs keep disrupting what should be a very solemn moment.
“I didn’t think they would be this bad,” I say to her, taking the mums back into my arms. “I usually came here in the winter, when everything was covered in snow.”
“Well, they sure are here now.” Madison digs at her wrists.
“We should cross the road.”
We reach the blacktop and have a moment’s reprieve from the bugs. Madison grows quiet again and I retreat into my thoughts. I have been to this place many times, always watching my father as he led the way. It is strange to come here without him.
“You good?” Madison’s question is a loaded one.
I nod because I feel alright. Although Madison has become a sister to me, she knows she is an interloper here. She still has her father: in my head, I see the thick skin of his forearms, brown and lacquered with sweat, as he cuts grass outside every Sunday. He has huge headphones covering his ears and small, wire-framed readers that he pulls from his pocket. He’s alive.
“I’m good,” I reassure her.
She doesn’t smile, but she stands closer to me, as though she can shield me somehow. I think she is desperate to see the gravestone first. I know Madison wants to avert disaster in any way that she can. I keep moving forward, deeper into the grass. The thick copse encircling the graveyard is noisy with bugs. There are no fresh flowers anywhere, just chipped stone. This place looks weathered, beaten.
I am moving too fast and all of a sudden, I see it. Madison halts right at my heels. I am dizzy with incomprehension and drowsy heat. The gnats take the opportunity to swarm.
In my nightmares, I am always falling soundlessly, hurtling into space. It is all of the empty air around my back that makes the dreams so haunting. The feeling that any moment I will pitch backwards and begin to fall threatens to consume me. I make my way around the stone and squat into the grass. The gnats hover around my shiny arms and calves. I want to itch so badly.
“I think so.” I brush grass clippings from the marker: ROBERT L WAGNER. There is a small flag fastened into the earth right in front of it, casting rippled shadows on the stone. I read further: GM3 US NAVY.
Madison is confused.
“It’s not his.” I look up at her, gnats filling my vision for a moment. “It’s my grandfather, the first Robert.”
I point to the end of the inscription: KOREA SEP 3 1929 JAN 28 1994
I can only look at the last date with silent reverence. He died four years before I was born, before I could have met him. Madison gives me a moment before she asks me her burning question:
“So, where’s your father’s?”
I pause, sucking the air between my teeth. I feel a little dizzy from the heat and the discovery. The back of my legs tremble as though I am about to fall. “I don’t think he has one. Maddy, I know he’s here. But I don’t think he was given one.”
“It’s better than a pauper’s grave.” I brushed the stone with my thumb. “He’s also here. Look.” I point, and she follows with her eyes.
I know this isn’t the way these things are done. The grave’s ornaments have grown old and weathered in my absence. I don’t know the location of my father’s grave because I wasn’t there to see him buried. I was ready to give everything up to go with my mother to see that his body was brought back safely. My mother wasn’t lucid, the intensity of her grief making her violent. I remember being pushed out of my father’s apartment, clutching a ziplock bag that held his dirty marathon metals and his masonic ring in the swell of my hand.
The air was frigid, making me instinctively hold my breath as I walked back to the car and cried. I would have given anything for the steady sound of his voice then, as I made the decision to leave him behind. Eventually, I learned that no one really came to his funeral at all, although he was given a ceremonial burial by white-gloved marines. Although the image of that lonely burial would haunt me, I never regretted my decision.
“I’m really fine, I’m feeling very calm.”
My father died in the winter, like his father. A week before Christmas, a year after the poetry recitation contest. The earth was too hardened, so they had to wait to bury him until the snow melted.
I stand up and drift toward the headstone. There is an overgrown evergreen bush that was deposited there by my mother when I was a little girl. The stone itself is speckled by large, green spots, almost obscuring my father’s and grandfather’s name. A carving of a bird, wheeling through some clouds, is etched onto the stone.
“See, Maddy? My dad’s here, too.”
I can tell my mother has been here before me. It has been three years since my father was buried, but the artifacts my mother placed there are still present.
“What the hell?” Madison says under her breath.
There is an oblong grey box placed beside a stone tray. A large, white stain mars the side of it. The bugs are overwhelming as I kneel before the headstone, unlatching the box that my mother has placed there. It’s really the only thing marking my father’s presence. In it, I find a ziplock bag that hasn’t been secured, full of pictures. They are soggy, the ink bleeding in places. On top, miraculously, I find two of my stuffed cats from when I was a little girl.
In my absence, my mother has buried me along with my father.
Madison peers over my shoulder as I look at my own face: school portraits, blurred polaroids, ripped-out journal entries. I am mute with amazement. I replace them with the two identical cats. As a girl, I had four or five of the same toy which kept getting replaced as they got older. One Oliver, the original, has his pink nose ripped off. Their fur is matted and dull from age, their eyes a lackluster blue. I hug them to my chest, contemplate taking them with me.
Madison doesn’t breathe a word.
“I’m glad I came now,” I whisper. I don’t feel the need to cry or to bow my head. I didn’t know what I was expecting after finally coming to my father’s grave, but it wasn’t this. “Can you put the mums there?”
Maddy places the almost forgotten flowers next to my elbow. I am happy they are so bright and yellow. Each year, the week of his death, I have bought yellow flowers for my father. I had never had anywhere to put them.
“Please take a picture?” I ask Madison. She is steady as a rock beside me.
I slowly, reluctantly, place the photos and stuffed animals back into the box. I have disordered the grave, so when my mother comes she will know I have been here. Hopefully the flowers will still be alive.
“Do you need a moment?” Maddy asks softly.
I shake my head. “No, I’ve made my peace.”
She offers a hand and pulls me up. I shake out my stiff limbs, swatting away the bugs that have clung to my skin. Strangely, I feel a smile tugging at the corners of my lips. The image of my father’s eager face as I read my poem to him comes back. In this very still moment, I can feel the heat coming off of Madison’s skin as she quietly stands beside me.
“Let’s go.” I turn away from the grave without looking back, finished. “Mostly I just want to get away from the bugs.”
I walk, finally feeling steady on my feet.
Katherine Brown attended the University of Mary Washington as an undergraduate student. Her main focus is family memoir. She resides in Northern Virginia.