All Together Now
Margot and I ran up and down the hall, slipping sock-footed on the hardwood floors while Aunt Phoebe sat at the piano, playing ragtime. Mom scooped Margot up, put her down so that Margot’s feet were on top of hers. They danced around like that, like they were in a ballroom and Dad clanged on the pots and pans in the kitchen because Sunday meant blueberry pancakes. Phoebe stopped playing, but Mom and Margot kept dancing. Phoebe walked over to me and picked me up, plopped me down on the piano bench next to her. She took my hands and rested them on the backs of hers, like Mom did with Margot’s feet. This was the only physical contact that didn’t make Phoebe recoil. Jobs didn’t last, but every Sunday morning she was pounding on the keys like clockwork at ten. My fingertips barely reached her knuckles. Phoebe’s hands were friendly spiders that crawled up and down the ivory. Dad flipped the pancake and caught it in the pan. It sizzled. He put them all on one plate in the middle of the dining room table. They kept coming, kept stacking so high I thought they would reach the ceiling. They were taller than me. “Breakfast is served, ladies,” Dad said in a voice he reserved for special occasions.
Brand New Sister
Mom and I were playing Crazy Eights at the kitchen table. Aunt Phoebe and Margot had already gone to bed. We all lived in the yellow house with the three garden plots; fully cultivated. We had planted six rows of corn and Mom had almost gotten rid of the potato bugs, but she had given the grape vines over to the Japanese beetles. The garlic was drying on the front porch. Mom trusted me that summer to go out to the tomato plants with a pair of clippers and trim off all of the dead bits so that the healthy bits could grow.
I was in a big t-shirt and my underwear because it was record high heat and we didn’t have AC. Barely anybody on my street had AC because it was never supposed to get that hot.
All of the windows were open, and the little breeze was kicking up the cards on the table, making them flutter and jump. I had a glass of lemonade and was careful not to put my hand down in the pool of condensation. The cards were still soggy from the last time I did that, and Mom said there is nothing worse than a soggy deck. My father came downstairs in a clean white button down, ironed and starched so that it sat just right. His tie was hanging loose around his neck, but Mom didn’t get up to fix it for him. He went into the mudroom where there was mirror so he could tie it himself.
“Where are you going?” Mom asked.
“There’s a deltiologist in Dover who swears he found an 1856 red mercury stamp on a postcard he picked up from a pawn shop. He’s probably an idiot, but it would be nice find. They’re valued at over forty grand.”
“You haven’t been home a single night this week, and when you are home you’re down in the basement,” Mom said.
Dad didn’t turn away from his reflection. “Well, I don’t feel like sitting around here in my underwear.”
Mom bit her lip, and while looking away from him, her eyes landed on me.
“Mary, it’s time to brush your teeth,” she said.
They waited until they heard the click of the door shut before they started in on each other. I couldn’t hear words, but I could hear tones. I brushed my teeth harder, focused on polishing each individual tooth. I spat and it was red. I looked up at the mirror as Phoebe entered the bathroom behind me.
She stood by the door in her purple bathrobe. Her index fingers were pressed in each ear. Her hair was parted perfectly in the middle, and fixed in two thick brown braids that reached her collarbones. She groaned, “What is going on?”
Her face was contorted into every emotion I felt inside. Her mouth was almost folded in half. My parents must have heard her get up because their yelling stopped, the front door slammed, and I heard my dad’s car take off down the driveway. Then it was quiet. Phoebe removed her fingers from her ears and retreated to her room like nothing had happened.
I went downstairs to find Mom with her head down on the kitchen table. She looked up at me and had a soggy Ace of Spades stuck to her cheek.
“Where’s Dad?” I asked.
“Dad’s gone,” Mom said.
Soon after the divorce, Dad moved to Los Angeles. A year later, he was ready for Margot and me to visit. I was eleven years old and Margot was ten. The night before we flew out, Dad called us on the phone. “Can’t wait to see my girls,” he said, “I’ve got a special surprise.” Margot and I stayed up all night whispering to each other what it could be. We were thinking a puppy, or a trip to see the Hollywood stars. When we got to the airport, Mom cried when she realized she couldn’t go through security and had to hand us over to a ticket agent. At the gate, we managed to escape our watcher and went into a gift shop. Mom had given us a twenty to buy magazines or a treat. Instead we used it to buy Dad a lobster keychain.
For that first cross-country flight they pinned the red and white stripe unaccompanied minor badges on us like Scarlet Letters. But instead of being ostracized like Hester, Margot and I became the plane-wide pity party. The parade of fellow passengers moving down the aisle tousled our hair, offered us their second packet of peanuts.
At LAX, there was a point where the escalator down to baggage claim sank to a level where I could just see Dad standing on the floor below, smiling. His eyes were bright, I momentarily thought he was just excited to see me and Margot. But then the steps sank a little lower and I saw a woman come up behind him and put her hand on his shoulder. He pointed at us. She waved.
“Who’s that?” Margot asked. I didn’t answer so she tugged on my arm. “Mary, who is that?” I shrugged her off and told her that I didn’t know. But I had a feeling that I did know.
Dad kissed Margot and me on the forehead and introduced the woman as Debbie. He told us to give her a hug. Margot refused. Debbie and I embraced like mannequins would.
Debbie didn’t look a thing like Mom. She had white-blonde hair that was teased up in the back and roller bangs that sprouted from her forehead the same way her spider leg eyelashes sprouted from her eyes. A sequin top plunged low to show ample cleavage, and her leather pants creaked when she walked. My mom was like me, religiously plain. I didn’t even know if she had cleavage. Her idea of dressing up was her white turtleneck with a blueberry print, and cleaning the soil out from underneath her fingernails.
Dad looked different, too. He had grown a thick mustache like a broomhead over his top lip. When he kissed us the bristles made me gag. He was wearing a white collared shirt, with the top few buttons undone so that a nest of black chest hair peeked out.
Dad said he met Debbie, and her daughter Tammy, at a Cirque Du Soleil memorabilia auction.
“I was just there to look at some old show costumes. Boy, I have a great assortment started. You kids know Pete Vallee, the world famous Elvis impersonator? Well, I won his red scarf off of Ebay. What a find.” Debbie cleared her throat. “Anyway, then I see this little lady across the room looking at the batons.” He patted Debbie’s butt and she giggled. “Her daughter, Tammy, is a world-renowned twirler, and has an impressive collection of show costumes herself. Can you believe it, girls? A brand new sister.”
I threaded my arm through Margot’s. We studied all the little squares on the tiled floor, we could see the reflection of their beaming faces.
Debbie said to Dad in an audible whisper, “I thought you told them to wear something nice for dinner tonight? We’re going to a steakhouse, not McDonald’s.”
I looked over at Margot and she was staring at the pennies in her loafers. That morning, Mom had laid out her corduroys and a cable-knit sweater. She braided her hair and put in a butterfly clip and told her she was beautiful.
Quick, Like a Band-Aid
I stood on Dad’s stoop, my fist hovering at the door. Ready to knock yet not ready at all. I hadn’t seen him in two years. It felt weird to need him again. After Margot’s call, I had jumped on my bike and pedaled east. My t-shirt stuck to my back. I hadn’t had any water that morning, but I didn’t feel tired at all. It felt like there was a magnet pulling me, like my legs weren’t doing any of the work, for twenty miles.
Dad still lived in the same house. Tammy and Debbie had moved out three years earlier. It was only a fifteen minute drive from Pitzer campus. I didn’t know if Dad knew that. I didn’t even know if he was aware that I was living in California.
I knocked. It took a long time for him to come to the door. I looked at the planters that surrounded the stairs where Debbie had put gardenias a few years before. Now they were just pots of dirt and trash. Inside them were two crushed Coor’s cans which couldn’t have been Dad’s. He was a whisky guy. I pictured drivers tossing them out their front windows, and Dad not even noticing them when he walked by.
When he finally came to the door, he kept it latched. “Who is it?” he said through the gap.
“It’s Mary. Margot said she’d call you.”
Dad was silent. He didn’t unlatch the door, but he moved so I could see him. He was wearing a stained white tank top, and had a beard. I had never seen him with a full beard and now I knew why. It grew in patchy on his cheeks.
“Margot said she’d tell you about Phoebe,” I said. Dad nodded slowly. I reached in through the gap and put my hand where his fingers gripped the doorway. I wanted to cry. “You’ll come home for the funeral, right?”
“I can’t,” Dad said to the floor. “I tried, but I can’t.”
“What do you mean?”
He flicked his thumb back to the room behind him. “I can’t leave the house.”
I felt really exposed standing there on the stoop, like death could just swoop down and grab me. “Dad. I need you to get me to the airport,” I said. I wrapped my hand around his. It felt good to touch someone else who once knew Phoebe. I couldn’t even think anymore. I needed somebody to help me get me on a plane. I barely got myself there. I glanced at my bike, parked crookedly in his driveway. He hid his face behind the door. “Can you let me in? Undo the latch, Dad.”
“I can’t let you see,” he said. “It’s a shithole in here. It would kill me.”
“Don’t say that,” I snapped. “Just let me in. This is ridiculous.”
His hand leapt up to the latch, and he undid it. Quick, like a band-aid, and I fell through the doorway and let myself drop into his arms and he held me like he used to, with one hand on my head. Dad really did give good hugs, when he gave them.
When I finally unburied my face, I looked past his shoulder. I couldn’t even recognize the layout of the house because it was lined with junk, wall to wall. Literal garbage that he could never sell. There were soggy Chinese take-out containers next to broken Christmas tree ornaments, old Fisher Price toys on top of toilet paper rolls, empty cereal boxes. Broken mirrors. The tail of a jump rope. That’s mine, I thought. Then I realized it was a different color.
He had moved his garden gnomes inside the house, and seated them at the dining room table. I suppose they were his company, maybe his family now. None of them looked happy to be there, even though there were merry smiles painted on their faces. I saw a cuckoo-clock that I know he’d sold before. Had he bought it back?
The stench hit me, and I had to pull my sweaty t-shirt up over my nose. But it was still making me gag, making my eyes water on top of the tears. When I inhaled, I could taste it. Like sour milk mixed with death.
I saw Dad’s face drop as he watched me take in his mess. He still had an arm around me. “I’m having a hard time letting stuff go,” he said.
I yanked my t-shirt off of my face and smiled at him. “I’ll call a cab,” I said. “Why don’t we wait outside in the sunshine?”
He nodded and started to follow me out. He had one foot on the top step and kept one in the doorway. That was enough for me. I breathed the fresh air and sat down. Dad pulled his old leather wallet out of his back pocket. “Take this with you,” he said, handing me a two-dollar bill. “Could be worth a fortune some day.”
Make a show of scrounging around your purse for your ID. That was my trick for getting alcohol from flight attendants when I was under 21. The secret is to pull everything out of the pockets, even old receipts and candy wrappers. Keep going until her patience wears thin, until the people in the rows behind you are staring as well, wondering what’s holding up the drink cart. Don’t back down, that’s how you get the gin.
It was before lunchtime, and at first I felt guilty about drinking next to the unaccompanied minor seated next to me. But I was flying home for a funeral, so I got another drink. She was picking her nose while playing her Gameboy anyway.
I drank gin because it reminded me of my mom, how in the summers she said it kept the mosquitos away. She was actually thinking of Quinine in the tonic, and there wasn’t really enough of that to do anything to the mosquitos. I still thought it tasted like bug spray.
I leaned my head against the window and saw a dozen geese, flying in a perfect V. I had never seen birds from a plane and didn’t know they could fly that high. I knew a little about birds from my Aunt Phoebe. She was somewhat of an orniphile. These were Snow Geese. They form a V in order to conserve energy while migrating. When one is tired, it drops to the back to rest on the currents of others.
I pictured my family’s faces on these geese bodies, and how we would undoubtedly cause the V to disperse. One front goose veers off entirely without a word. The one at the back, simply stops flapping and plummets towards earth. And me, incessantly squawking. Spiraling. Scared we would all be sucked up into the plane’s engines.
Family has always been hard for me. Maybe I’m just bad at it.
I wiped my nose with my cocktail napkin and stuffed it into my empty plastic cup. I reached up and fumbled around, turned on the light a few times before finally hitting the call button.
The unaccompanied minor stared at me, like I was the gross one, even though she was the one picking her nose. I pointed to the screen in front of me. “It’s a sad movie,” I told her. Legally Blonde was playing.
“Are you drunk?” She plugged her nose at me.
“Not yet,” I said, shrugging. “You know what rock bottom means?”
She shook her head, of course not.
“Excuse me,” I looked up and the flight attendant was standing over us. She grabbed the girl’s purple backpack from under her feet and said, “Follow me, honey.”
I watched them walk down the aisle toward the back of the plane. “Can I get another gin and tonic?” I called after them. An old woman clicked her tongue at me. I put my feet up on the girl’s seat, pretended like that was what I wanted all along.
Devan Brettkelly is a graduate of Scripps College and Saint Mary’s College MFA fiction program. She grew up in Maine, and is currently living in San Francisco. This is her first time in print.