All the highways looked the same and I could not read the map, so I marked distance by crackles in the radio. When Dolly Parton faded into static, we listened to a man yell about the Lord on WSOF: the Wonderful Sounds of Faith! The Lord would not protect those who were asleep. In the backseat, my sister Charlie slept with her mouth open. The radio lapsed into fuzz.
“We’re too far from the station,” Mom explained. “The sound can’t reach us.”
Her peach-painted fingernails moved on the dial, turning and tuning until crackle gave way to tinny advertisement jingle. I paged through a book of maps until Mom got sick of the noise and told me to stop. Eventually, the mountains got in the way and there was no radio at all. We drove in silence.
The way I remember it—pulling down the dirt driveway, Daddy waving to us from the porch of our old house—Mom never got out of the car.
She said, “Oh, god, he’s got a stupid little beard,” and then she didn’t say anything else. Charlie and I flung ourselves from the car, crashing into Daddy. Mom stayed where she was behind the wheel, poised to leave. I could be remembering wrong.
There is a picture from that day of Charlie and Daddy and me on the porch. Chris and kids, 1981. I’m wearing my new red sneakers—apresent for my seventh birthday—even though Mom said they’d get ruined in all that dust. In the bottom corner of the photo is a smudge between porch rails that I can convince myself is That Cat, if I strain. I have spent a lot of time squinting, giving shape to smudge, turning silence significant. I remember wrong.
Mom must have gotten out of the car to take that photograph. She probably stayed for dinner. I can’t remember; she didn’t exist so much next to Daddy. In the photo, he stands in the middle of the porch with a hand on my head. His stupid beard obscures his mouth. He might be smiling. He might be scowling.
In the photograph, Charlie grins big at the camera, gap-toothed. I am turned, staring up at my father in my new red sneakers.
After he accompanied a funeral, Daddy allowed himself a cigarette. He kept a pack of Camels in his glove compartment. As we drove home, he would take one hand off the wheel, hold it out flat. It was my job to retrieve the box and tap out a cigarette.
Then he would say, “Never start smoking, Christopher. Not even once.”
I would say solemnly, “Not even once,” and he would nod, put the cigarette in his mouth with a quiet scritchof paper against beard. He wouldn’t light up until we got home and Charlie and I went out back to play. Then he would sit on our front step and smoke.
I don’t remember our first funeral of the summer except for the drive home. Daddy was pissed that I was crying and trying not to show it. When he elbowed me playfully, too rough, I shrank away.
"Cheer up,” he said. “At least it was crowded. The only thing sadder than a crowded funeral is one where nobody shows.”
I put my forehead to the rattling window.
"A funeral for a baby," said Charlie from the backseat. She was five with legs too short to fold over the seat, sticking out straight. I could see gum glued to her sole. She should have been in a car seat, but Daddy never forced her. As a compromise she wore two seatbelts, crisscrossing her torso like a bandolier from a cowboy movie. Between her legs she cradled Daddy’s violin case—smaller than her, but only just.
"What's that, Charlotte?" Daddy looked back at her, dust-colored eyebrows crinkling. His beard was redder than the rest of his hair and patchy. There were bare spots of light, freckled skin by his ears, under his chin.
"Funeral for a baby," Charlie said louder, "would be sadder."
"Could be," he agreed, grave. He always talked to us like we were adults. I could never picture him as a child, just as I cannot picture him as an old man. He might have always been this way, browned and shabby and upright, with a cigarette in his mouth. "You done crying, Christopher?"
I wasn't, really, but he wasn’t asking, really. I sat up, mumbled, "Yeah."
"Good," said Daddy. "Funerals aren’t so sad. We did a good thing today."
"A funeral for Jesus,” said Charlie. “Bet they were sad when Jesus died.”
“He came back,” I disagreed. I knew this story well; Grandma was always talking about Jesus like he was a relation.
“But they didn’t know he was gonna do that.”
Daddy laughed like he always did when Charlie won an argument. I pretended not to mind.
When we got home I sat on the porch and felt sorry for myself. That Cat came and sat next to me, digging her claws into my scratchy funeral pants. That Cat loved me best, anyway. She was big and ugly with a torn-up ear, a comfortable weight on my lap.
“Careful that thing don’t ruin your good pants,” Daddy said when he came out to smoke.
That Cat fixed Daddy with a resentful stare. He glared right back. That Cat had started coming around after Mom moved us up to Connecticut, and Daddy said she wouldn’t leave no matter how mean he treated her. Daddy didn’t like how That Cat slept under the truck and killed birds for fun. That Cat didn’t like how Daddy thought he was in charge.
Daddy blew smoke towards the road. The sun was going down. It was hot, I think. It was always hot that June. I can’t remember a single day of rain, just a warm and endless drone of bees in the crabapple trees. The air swam thick with specks—pollen or dust or lightning bugs.
“You mad at me?” He was amused at the idea. I pinched my mouth tight.
“Thought so,” said Daddy, exhaling a laugh.
I watched his back move. He was not a big man, but he held his shoulders square, bare feet on the worn wood porch. He had hair on his toes. That Cat dug her claws into my lap again, too sharp. I pushed her off and she sulked away, tail rigid with indignation. We watched her go.
“I cried at my first funeral, too,” Daddy said unexpectedly. He blew out cigarette smoke. It didn’t smell like rat poison, like my teacher talked about. It smelled like the back of Daddy’s closet, if you hid behind his winter jacket and flannels and the boxes of Mom’s stuff that hadn’t fit in Grandpa’s truck. "But you can’t go around feeling other people’s sadness all the time. It’d get too heavy. We give folks some comfort this way. Music’s good like that.”
I said, "Yes, sir."
I was done crying for real. Daddy had given me a bit of himself and I held it greedily, tucked into my cheek where it could melt slowly.
When Daddy finished his cigarette, he took up his violin. At the first frenzy of notes, Charlie came running around the house, muddy to her knees with cupped, wet hands. I shrank back as she produced a toad, a silent movie of squeamish. We didn’t like to talk when Daddy played the violin, in case we frightened the music away.
She tipped the toad into my hands and I tried not to grimace. If I made a big show of yuck, Daddy would tell me to toughen up. He was always saying that—grow some thicker skin, Christopher—and I didn’t want to spoil this warm night.I held the toad very still, its pulse beating wildly against my fingers. I was sorry for it, sorrier for myself.
Charlie moved to watch Daddy’s hands. He was playing something quiet and deep, so pretty it could make you cry—warm fuzzy notes that lingered in the hot night air like dust. It seemed to me we could pop each note like a soap bubble if we tried. My hands were warm. The toad was peeing.
After my first funeral, I did not cry. I learned to stand stiff and stoic in a scratchy black suit, too short around the wrists. Dad said he’d buy me a new suit when we came to stay next summer. He bought Charlie a new pair of funeral shoes as soon as she complained that her toes pinched. I thought this was unfair. Daddy only looked at me, fair lashes over hard eyes.
“Your shoes pinching you, Christopher?”
“No,” I said, shrinking. I held out my arm as a final defense, exposing fat wrists so unlike my father’s bony, deliberate hands. Daddy blinked down.
“Those sleeves hurt?”
“No,” I said again, understanding I had lost. Daddy nodded like he knew it, too. Charlie wore her new shoes out of the store.
Playing the violin at funerals was not Daddy’s real job. Most of the year, he taught algebra and music at the Duval County high school, but in the summer he let his hair grow over the tops of his ears and only wore a tie for funerals. I did not like the funerals, but I loved my father. I liked riding in the passenger seat and fiddling with the radio, fishing for an elusive classical music station between waves of static and burbling country.
Daddy always wrinkled his nose at country music, so Charlie and I did, too. As he drove, he would tell us about Bach and Beethoven, who we learned about in school, and Tchaikovsky, who we hadn’t. Daddy said that was because Tchaikovsky was a Russian and a queer. I watched his hands twitch on the wheel in time with the string instruments.
“What’s queer?” Charlie asked.
“A homosexual,” Daddy said. “Quiet for this next part.”
We went quiet. Even the truck seemed to rattle less violently, out of respect for the tremulous violins and the private way Daddy’s mouth turned up at the corners. Another silence that I have tried to give shape to. We loved him so frightfully. We never asked the right questions.
The best kind of funerals were for old people with big families, standing around in comforting clumps and singing along when Daddy played Amazing Grace and the song about how the Lord was a shepherd. Those were the nicest funerals because afterwards folks would come over to ask me and Charlie if we were proud of our talented daddy, and sometimes to slip us a dollar. Daddy said it was okay to take the money, so long as it was offered freely. We were not allowed to ask.
Church was an interesting place to be. It was hard to be quiet, but there was lots of standing and kneeling and sitting in unison which I liked. I took a solemn thrill in the big, circular words—as it was in the beginning, is now, ever shall be.
When the priest said “Let us pray” and everyone put forehead to fist, I peeked through lowered lids like a spy. Next to me, Charlie’s eyes were screwed shut, grubby thumb in mouth. Daddy had his head bowed, but his eyes were open. He winked at me and I grinned back, rejoicing in this secret moment.
There were no baseball games on television that June because the MLB was on strike, and everything on the news was about the twenty-eight children who’d been murdered in Atlanta. Five homosexual men in California were found with a rare form of pneumonia. A gunman held hostages in the Atlanta Federal Building. Charlie and I watched the nightly news from beginning to end without real interest or fear, waiting for the cowboy movies.
As long we sat quiet, Daddy let us stay up to watch Clint Eastwood and Kenny Rogers shoot ‘em up. I watched without breathing, a hand thumbing along my jaw, longing for stubble and grit, trying to hold my mouth loose and knocked off-center like a cowboy. Afterwards Charlie and I would stalk around the bathroom bowlegged, growling “killin’s too good for you” through mouthfuls of toothpaste.
Mom phoned every Monday night to ask if we were bathing and drinking our milk. I missed her, but found these calls tiresome. She always interrupted the cowboy shows. Charlie and I would crowd around the receiver, jostling to tell any stories we had accumulated that week; That Cat had fought a skunk and Charlie had found an Indian arrowhead and Daddy had killed a rattlesnake with a shovel. Charlie told the stories better, but I told them more truthfully, and so each was never content with the other’s telling.
We did not tell her about the funerals. I don’t think we made this agreement aloud, but Charlie and I wanted Daddy to ourselves—his stupid beard and his neck bruised violet from the violin and his quiet, still face when he played Amazing Grace. A summer was not long enough.
The worst kind of funerals were for children. No one sang. Everyone cried, even the grown-ups. The worst part was watching Daddy get awkward and choked-up, trying to refuse payment from the mourning family.
Or maybe the worst part was when he eventually caved and took the money. He was always remote, far away from everyone else, but that distance became most pronounced and wrong when he shoved a fold of bills into a pocket and slouched back to the truck.
Daddy maintained that the worst funerals were empty. Charlie and I didn’t mind those so much, except that they were boring. Daddy would play every single song, even if there were only five mourners, even if we were the only ones. After our first empty funeral, he made us kneel quietly and when I peeked over my knuckles, his eyes were closed. I don’t think he was praying. I don’t think he believed in God.
“How come you played all the songs?” I asked on the drive home. “Nobody heard except us.”
“Dead people can hear music,” Charlie said. Her arm was in a sling from falling out of a tree in the backyard—another thing we did not tell Mom—so she had the violin clamped between her knees for safe-keeping.
Daddy laughed. I never liked when he laughed at me, but the way he laughed at Charlie was different. Appreciative. I raised my voice:
“How come nobody came, though?”
Daddy’s hand was on the radio dial, turning.
He said, “Sometimes people live the wrong way or they die the wrong way. Folks don’t like to look too close.”
“You couldn’t see, anyhow,” Charlie said. “There was a lid.”
“Pretty stupid of them,” Daddy agreed. He looked sideways at me and his expression went serious. “I like to think someone’ll do the same for me when I go, Christopher. Death’s not so sad as loneliness.”
After a summer of funerals, I was not afraid of death. The thought of Daddy dying wasn’t frightening, just odd.
He was young for a father. Even under his scruffy beard, his face was youthful and fine-boned.
“You don’t think nobody will come to your funeral, Daddy?”
“Anybody,” Daddy corrected.
“Of course people will come,” I told Charlie, but I was already remembering that Daddy didn’t talk about his family and he wasn’t friends with the other men in town, not really.
“Remote,” Mom called Daddy on the first long drive to Connecticut after Grandpa picked us up and helped pack all our stuff into the truck. Mom must have thought we were both asleep because she smoked a cigarette out the window and when she was finished she said, “What else was I supposed to do, Dad?”
And Grandpa said he didn’t know, but that he was sure she’d done her best with a bad situation. It was not decent, he said. Unnatural.
“Well I hope you two will be there,” said Daddy lightly. The car bumped down the dirt driveway. I should have felt sad or confused by his separateness. But instead, stomach jolting with the car, I felt a surge of pride for my young and talented daddy, dust-colored and hard to touch.
“I’ll die the same time as you, Daddy,” I promised.
“And me!” said Charlie, offended.
“It’s a deal,” Daddy agreed. He laughed, reached over and squeezed my shoulder softly.
On Independence Day, Daddy let us pour root beer into ice cube trays to freeze solid. We ate sweet, amber ice on the front porch until we were sticky between our fingers, and I didn’t dare complain about stickiness with Daddy so good-humored. We washed our hands under the garden hose and then Daddy chased us around the yard, spraying our heels and laughing when Charlie skidded on her butt in the wet grass.
The neighbors set off fireworks. Charlie begged and begged Daddy to buy fireworks, but for once he did not cave to her. “No kid of mine is getting their hand blown off like some fuckin’ redneck,” he said. Instead, we sat on the porch and watched scattered fireworks over the trees, feeling the boom rattle our teeth. Daddy played Grand Ole Flag on the violin and Charlie and I sang along.
Charlie picked up her popsicle stick, stained red and blue, to read the joke printed on the back. It took her a long time to sound out the words. Waiting was agony, but Daddy said it was important that Charlie learned to read for herself. I was not allowed to interrupt.
“What… do… t-tr-trees like to dr-i-nk?”
Daddy latched his violin case while he thought. Charlie and I eagerly watched his fair eyebrows furrow. I don’t think we ever stopped wondering over him, our young and talented daddy who could play any song and answer any riddle.
“Root beer,” he said, deliberate and decisive. I read the answer over Charlie’s shoulder, too excited to wait.
“Heyyy,” Charlie’s mouth got big with outrage. “It was my turn!”
“Chris,” said Daddy like a warning.
“She takes too long,” I said, guilty. “It’s not funny if you read so slow.”
“Charlie’s reading real good. Tell her you’re sorry.”
“It’s just a dumb popsicle.”
“Sorry, Charlie,” I mumbled, shamed and hot-eyed.
Overhead there was a big burst of red sparks, but I didn’t feel like watching anymore. I put my forehead on my knees.
That Cat was frightened by the fireworks. A big yellow one boomed overhead and That Cat took off running. Charlie and Daddy laughed at the sight of her, but I felt sorry and followed That Cat around the house to peer beneath Daddy’s truck. She hissed when I reached a hand into the dark. I was stung by the rejection, afraid of being scratched. I went back to the porch.
Daddy and Charlie were having too much fun to pay my foul mood any mind. When Daddy offered me a popsicle, I shook my head nastily.
“Grape is the worst flavor.” He looked annoyed for a second. Then he laughed, jostled me.
“Can’t we make peace, Christopher? Let’s air our grievances.”
I didn’t know what this meant, but I knew he was making fun. My silence would not hold.
“You like Charlie best and it’s not fair. You like her better’n me.”
“I do?” he asked, still teasing.
“I’m not fooling. Stop fooling.” He stopped smiling.
“Okay, no fooling. You want me to treat you like an adult or a child, Christopher? Which is it?”
I didn’t know. My fingers were sticky with soda. My hands felt webbed and clumsy.
“Look,” Daddy said. “You want to read me a riddle? You want me to send you to bed?”
I wanted to wash my hands. I wanted him to laugh like I’d said something clever. I shook my head.
“No, thank you.”
Dad laughed, swore to himself, and went to chase Charlie with the hose. I understood I was being ignored. The night was spoiled and everything had gone thick and sticky and terrible.
I went to hide in the shed so I could cry without Daddy getting pissed. I fell asleep in there, wedged between a lawn chair and a half-deflated pool floatie, waiting for someone to miss me and come looking. I woke to a stiff neck and root beer dried candy-sticky to my legs. It was morning.
Charlie looked up when I came inside, sticky and itchy and shamed. She was eating cereal and dribbling milk on her cast, watching me with interest. I poured cereal and ignored her.
“Daddy knew you were in the shed,” Charlie said.
“Yep. He said.”
“Why didn’t you come get me, then?”
She shrugged. “He said you’d come back when you were through being a baby.”
I was angry to be so understood. I think I might have gone back into that shed or run away for real just to
prove him wrong, but then Daddy came into the kitchen, dressed for a funeral.
“Good sleep, Christopher?”
“He was in the shed,” said Charlie traitorously. “You were right.”
Daddy didn’t gloat. He poured himself some coffee.
“Both of you need to shower. We’ve got a funeral.”
“I’m not going.”
Daddy didn’t look startled. I think that was all I wanted, really—to make him look at me twice, to reconsider. But he sat down at the table and handed Charlie a napkin, spoke without turning his eyes toward me.
“You gonna punish some dead person ‘cause you’re mad at me, Christopher?”
“No,” I said, “but I’m not going.”
“Well, okay then.” He sipped his coffee.
“Mom wouldn’t think it’s right,” I said loudly, unable to let it go. Wanting to be looked at. “If she knew you were letting us come along. We’re too young for funerals.”
He finally turned and looked at me. Even so, his voice was friendly and pleasant, all the hard edges sanded off, all the vowels slow and southern.
“You with your mother right now, Christopher?”
I looked away. As desperately as I craved my father’s attention, I didn’t want it once I had it. Charlie was looking at me across the table, dribbling milk on her cast, eyes big like she was surprised. I did not feel better to be surprising. I felt reckless and sore and sticky.
“Bet Mom’d be mad if she knew Charlie got her arm broke. We’re not allowed to climb trees.”
“Well, shit,” said Daddy pleasantly, “good thing you’re here to tell me the rules, Christopher. Anything else I’m doing wrong, since we’re talking? Any other ways I’m failing you as a father?”
I thought, suddenly, of that long ride in Grandpa’s truck, tucked between boxes, pretending to sleep while Mom cried in the front seat. Daddy had stood on the porch and smoked a cigarette and watched while we packed the car, but he didn’t say not to go. The trunk had been so full of boxes I couldn’t see out the back window, no matter how I craned for a last look. But now I was certain that Daddy had not even waited ‘til we were down the driveway to turn and go inside. He had not even lifted a hand to wave. He was far away, untouchable, in a place I could not ever reach.
But I could not say that. My face burned.
I whispered, “No, sir.”
Daddy was already standing, splashing coffee into the sink, saying, “You two better stay here and call your mom while I’m gone. Bet she’ll be here by dinner if you cry on the phone, Christopher.”
His voice was still friendly, but he slammed the door real hard on his way out and then I could see him through the kitchen window, standing on the porch with his shoulders hunched all angry, lighting up a cigarette.
“Chris,” said Charlie in a horrified whisper. She was muffled by the noise of the truck rattling to life outside. I found that I could not cry. Something mean and evil had gotten inside my throat and it wouldn’t let me cry.
“Shut up,” I told her, and maybe I would have said worse, only then the front door slammed back open and Daddy was in the kitchen, pouring smoke from his open mouth.
For a second I thought he was back to yell some more. Maybe he was going to hit me, the way other dads did when they got angry. But he didn't say anything else and I saw that his eyes were wet.
"I didn't see it," he said. He swore, touched his neck. "I didn't know—the stupid thing must’ve been asleep under the wheel."
We buried That Cat in a cardboard box in the sunniest corner of the yard. Daddy dug the hole. Charlie and I sat on the back step and watched sweat bloom across his back, turning his t-shirt dark.
I cried. Charlie scratched at her shin, aflame with poison ivy, and sniffled.
"He didn't mean to," she said.
I knew that, but it didn’t change anything.
“Daddy went and checked on you in the shed,” she said. “I heard him go last night and peek.”
Carpenter bees had left the porch steps pocked and scarred. I poked my finger through a knothole. Charlie put her thumb in her mouth and went inside. She came back in her funeral dress and her new shiny shoes and her white lacy socks. It felt like the right thing to do. Usually I resented her for the easy way she always did the right thing, but I was grateful then. I found my funeral suit.
Once the hole was big enough, Daddy threw down his shovel. He wiped his face on his shirt as he crossed the yard, stopping short at the back step. He took in Charlie's shiny shoes, my too-short cuffs. His face crumpled for half a second.
"Let me change," he said. He came back with his violin and his best funeral suit.
We had a moment of silence as Daddy lowered a shoebox into the hole and covered it with dirt. Charlie put a bundle of wildflowers onto the mound. Daddy winced.
“That’s a lot of poison ivy, Charlotte,” he said, but he hugged her to his side. He looked at me. I ducked my head so he wouldn’t see me crying. “You want to say anything?”
I did, but I was afraid my voice would betray tears. I did not want to be told to toughen up. I shook my head and stared at my feet, at my hands hanging stupidly from too-short sleeves.
“We should say a prayer,” Charlie said.
“Okay,” said Daddy. He hesitated.
“Dear God,” Charlie prompted. Daddy grimaced.
“Dear God, I tell you what, That Cat lived a good life. She killed the chipmunks and ate the garbage and lived like a king. And the fact that we’re here today shows that she was loved. Amen.”
“One time she killed a bunny, Dear God,” Charlie added anxiously. “But I don’t think she meant to, so please don’t punish her. Really she was a good cat, even though she scratched.”
“Don’t worry about that,” said Daddy. He looked at me. “Chris?”
I shook my head. Daddy unlatched his violin case. He played Amazing Grace and the one about the Lord being a Shepherd and then he played Grand Ole Flag because Charlie insisted it was That Cat’s favorite. We sang along to the words we knew. And that was the end of the funeral.
Daddy took Charlie inside to put lotion on her poison ivy. He said maybe we should call Mom tonight. Maybe a whole summer was too long for us to be away. But first we could have pancakes for dinner, a special treat.
He looked at me.
“You can help me flip them.”
“No, thank you,” I told him, but polite so I wouldn’t hurt his feelings.
I waited until he and Charlie went inside. Then I got some nice, flat rocks to put on That Cat’s grave. I thought about when Daddy played the violin at a Jewish funeral and an old lady gave Charlie and me cookies. On the way home, Daddy had explained about sitting Shiva. That Cat was very good at sitting still. She could sit on the front porch all day and just watch the dust in the air.
I sat down in the grass and cried some more.
Daddy came back. He had shaved his beard, and there was a shiny nakedness to his jaw that I didn’t like to look at. He was wearing his nice suit but he sat right down in the grass. He looked at me sideways. I pretended not to see.
“I think it’d be good if you said something,” he said. “Funerals are for the living to say goodbye.”
I didn’t answer.
“It’s okay if you’re mad at me.”
“I don’t mean to be so hard. You’re a good boy. You’re just a whole lot like me, and I wish you weren’t. It’d be easier on you.”
“I just want to sit here quietly,” I told him, but polite so I wouldn’t hurt his feelings. “Please.”
“Okay,” he said. He started to stand, then didn’t. “Can I sit with you a while?”
I said, “Yeah.”
When I looked over later, he had his head bowed. I might be remembering wrong, but I don’t think his eyes were closed. He was just sitting still like That Cat on the porch, watching the dust in the air. Without his suit jacket, his shoulders didn’t look so square and if he felt me looking, he didn’t turn. I don’t think he was praying. I don’t think he believed in God. I don’t know for sure.