by Kate Jones
First Place Personal Essay
I remember when they got the pheasant stuffed. I didn’t think it was ugly or scary or anything, just a beautiful shiny-green, shiny-red bird with very soft feathers. After Dad hung the mounting on Dan’s wall, I used to go into his room and stroke the bird and watch Dan play video games. He always told me to be careful because I might ruin it. I didn’t understand how you could ruin a bird that was already dead.
I’m not sure when I saw the pheasant last. I think it may have been when it was lying lopsided on its head, the neck bent back so the blank, shiny eyes focused on the garage floor, the soft body covered with dust.
When I came back that night, I didn’t immediately realize anything was wrong. The air outside was the kind of bitter that makes your eyebrows freeze the second you step into it. It was a perfectly clear December night, one where the moon and stars are cold white nuggets strategically placed in a comfortless black blanket. I gingerly tapped the steps with my toes before I put any weight on them because those are the nights when black ice might kill people. I jiggled the door, my warm hand freezing to the metal handle. Kicking off my shoes, I stepped inside the house that was golden with Christmas Eve anticipation. I shivered in the new warmth and announced my arrival home.
It was a good day. My parents let me take the car illegally to deliver my Christmas presents, and so I was on a kind of high from my new found freedom. In my thick socks I walked to the kitchen where I found Holley seasoning the raw salmon. I shook off my coat. I looked around for my dad and my stepmother.
“Where are Dad and Lorraine?” I asked.
A brief panic crossed her eyes, but she just kept parsleying the pan of fish. “Dan got sick again, and they took him back to Salt Lake.”
“Oh.” I snitched a carrot from the relish tray and sat on the pine bench in our large kitchen. Holley wrapped foil around the fish and stuck it in the oven while I sat there eating my carrot. Finally I asked, “What happened?”
“They don’t know, but Dad doesn’t think they’ll be back tonight. After what happened last time, Dr. Bjorkman said not to take him to Logan Regional under any conditions. Could you go check on Ryan and Scott for me?”
“Sure.” I stole another carrot on my way out of the kitchen. The carrots were very sweet.
I found the boys playing in the basement, and they taught me a game where we threw tennis balls at each other. Ryan especially liked it when he hit Scott in the head.
“Katie?” Annie called.
“Come here for a sec.” I took the stairs two at a time and found her and Holley waiting.
“Yeah?” I said again.
“Dad just called and said Dan’s going to be fine but he needs to stay in the hospital again. He and Lorraine aren’t going to be home until early tomorrow morning, so we’re just going to do Christmas Eve without them,” Annie informed me.
“Are you okay?” Holley asked.
“Yeah, I’m fine,” I said. “Just hungry, I guess.” I was, I think.
Christmas was a disappointment as usual. Not a terrible disappointment. I just didn’t really get anything I was hoping for. I don’t even remember what I wanted, just something other than what I got. This is typical and I should prepare myself not to expect anything. But then snow starts to fall, and I think about all the things I’d like, only to be disappointed again.
I sat in the green leather chair, reading. I felt overstuffed and stale from the remains of Christmas excitement.
“Hey, baby.” I looked up as Dad walked through the door and held out his hand.
“Hi,” I said, grabbing it. “Coming with us to Salt Lake today?” he asked me.
“I thought I’d go skiing this afternoon,” I said, knowing that was the wrong thing to say.
“Your brother is lying in the hospital with a tube in his throat and you are too selfish to take a second out of your day to go see him. Where did you come from?” Yeah, that was the wrong thing to say.
See, the thing is, I hate hospitals and I hate seeing people I know in them. It’s not that I didn’t love Dan or anything; I just didn’t want to see him with a tube in his throat. But I didn’t want the “where did I get such snobs for children?” lecture either, so I said, “Okay, I’ll go.”
“Get your shoes on. We’ll leave in ten minutes.” He scratched my head, and I squeezed his hand with mine for the two seconds it rested in my hair.
The drive seemed shorter than usual. I think that’s how it is when you have to do something you don’t want to, like debate in a tournament or see your dying brother. The more you don’t want it to come, the quicker it does, and you feel like you’re trying to firmly grasp something like a wriggling trout just pulled off the fly.
We walked into the room Dan shared with his co-colitis patient, separated from us by a flimsy blue curtain. Dan’s six-foot-three frame was sunken taut around the bones, and a lump crept into the back of my mouth. Lorraine said that on Christmas Eve he weighed 110 pounds – as much as I weigh. I’m five two.
“Hey,” he said, attempting a smile. “Dad said you didn’t want to come see me.”
I tried to smile back. “That’s okay. I wouldn’t want to see me either.”
He was watching Star Wars, and the only thought in my mind was how I’d never seen that movie before.
“I’ve never seen Star Wars before,” I said.
“We’ll have to watch it when I get home.” I nodded and sank into a disinfectant-scented chair in the dim room while Han Solo and Chewbacca argued about Luke’s safety or some equally pressing issue.
I don’t know how long we were there, but we were well into Empire Strikes Back when we left. Lorraine had some “business” to take care of in Salt Lake, so we agreed to take Dad’s car home. Dad would drive Dan’s Pathfinder back to Logan.
“Do you want me to unpack it?” Dad asked my brother. The car contained everything Dan owned.
“No, that’s okay. I’ll do it when I get home.”
“All right, Bucko. Feel better, okay? We love you.”
“Love you, too.” He closed his eyes, and we slipped out the door.
Once Lorraine and I shut our doors and waved Dad on, she turned to me and asked, “So … where should we go shopping?”
I knew this was her “business” all along. A girl gets a sense for her mother-figure’s intentions.
“I could maybe look at prom dresses,” I suggested.
My stepsister worked at Nordstrom, and we went to see her. She helped us find the dresses, and I tried on a burgundy crepe and silk dress that came with a scarf and was only forty dollars. Lorraine thought we should buy it because you never know when you’ll need a dress. I guess you never do.
It was dark when we started home. Lorraine pulled Dad’s cell phone out of her purse and handed it to me so I could tell him we were on our way.
When I was little, Dad used to always hum a song that never had words, at least in his world. He would start to sing it with lots of “ta, ta, ta”s, draw his arms close to his body, bent at the elbow, and shake one hand and leg at a time to the beat of his “music.” I think this is when the seeds of my extraordinary dancing abilities were planted. One day he and Mom took me to see Big River, and I learned where his little song came from. I turned to him in the darkened theater and smiled, and he smiled back. Sometimes he would walk into the kitchen after work and lay his briefcase on the table and start to sing. He’d take Mom by the hands, and they’d do the little dance together.
One day he stopped singing and dancing to that song. I decided if he wouldn’t do it, I’d do it for him, thinking he’d like it. I drew my elbows up to my chest and began to shake my hands and feet. His eyes filled with tears, and he hugged me tight. But he never sang that song again, and neither did I. I guess there are things that just aren’t done after your wife dies.
My dad once told me that I was the only child he really got to raise, so if he messed up, he would have hell to pay in the next life. My brother and sisters accuse me of having it so much easier than they did and tell me how he loves me more than them. But they don’t see what I see. An average workday turns into a sing-the-Metamucil-song day after Annie calls or Holley sends a note. I used to be jealous of their abilities to brighten his days like that, thinking they possessed some talent I didn’t. I reasoned he loved them more than me but knew that wasn’t true either. On the morning I left for college, I sat in the kitchen eating a bowl of Raisin Bran while he stuck two slices of bread in the toaster.
“Why do we have a toaster that doesn’t toast?” he asked in mock anger when his bread came up white and hot. I just smiled and continued consuming my daily fiber.
He put the bread back in the toaster and pushed the lever. It buzzed some awkward noise, and the bread came back up. He repeated this several times.
“Why won’t this bread stay down?” he yelled.
“Because you’re too impatient to let it cool!” I yelled back.
“Why won’t it stay down?” he asked again.
“Because you’re going to burn the damn house down!”
I realized what I said and began to giggle.
He turned. “When we drive away today, I’m going to cry. I hope you know that.”
I stood and hugged him. “I love you,” I said, my mouth muffled against his chest.
“You’re my babiest baby,” he said back. And that was that. We don’t talk about things of emotional value in my family. I went back to my cereal; he went back to his “toast”; and I realized, after only a few weeks of being away, that I possessed my siblings’ ability, too- I could spark his day by a phone call or a visit. I think it’s because he sees my mom in us all, so his kids are kind of like a bonus pack, two for the price of one.
Dan’s birth was special. He was the only boy, and Dad was so excited when his son was born that he bought a new car with money they didn’t have so he could take the new baby home in an off-road vehicle. When Dan could walk, my dad made sure he could fly-fish as well. He would wear little insulated overalls while Dad and Mr. Coray shot ducks from the canoe in the marshes. He made quick friends with the black labs and shot trap until he was a better marksman than our father. He got his own black puppy for his sixteenth birthday and soon thereafter killed a beautiful male bird that Mom took to a taxidermist in honor of her Ferris Beuller, as we called him. For one of Dad’s birth days, Dan gave him a photo of them when he was maybe three feet tall. My dad’s arm rested on Dan’s little shoulders while his other hand held a fishing rod. Dan’s blonde tow rested against my dad’s side and beneath the photo was a quote from A River Runs Through It:
In the half light of the canyon all existence fades into a being with my soul and memories and the sounds of the Big Blackfoot River, and a four-count rhythm, and the hope that a fish will rise. Eventually, all things merge into one, and a river runs through it … I am haunted by waters. *
After his mission Dan learned that if he registered for university classes, Dad would give him money for tuition because he wanted him to get an education so badly. He also learned that if he dropped all his classes and disappeared for the day, he would get a lot of money and Dad would think he was at school. I don’t know if my brother thought our PhD father was stupid or what, but it didn’t take Dad long to realize what was going on. It created kind of a rift between the two of them. I think Dad always dreamed of things being like the birthday picture again when they would fish and talk and be best friends. But things sometimes happen that create a permanent divide between people you love, a divide that can never be bridged.
I punched in the numbers on the cell phone. It rang once, twice, and then Dad picked up.
“Hi,” I said.
“We went shopping and ate dinner, and now we’re coming home.”
“Are you okay?”
He was never so sullen. “Can I talk to Lorraine?”
I handed her the phone, and she held it to her ear. She made a lot of “mmmm-hmmmm”s and “oh”s and “oh, Paul”s. I perked my ears, trying to deduce what had just happened. She folded the phone and handed it to me so I could put it away.
“What happened?” I asked. “Paul cleaned out Dan’s car …” she started. “And …”
“And so I guess a few years ago, Paul gave Dan the guns they always used when he was growing up. They meant a lot to Paul — they were originally his dad’s.”
“So Paul was cleaning out the car and couldn’t find the guns anywhere. He called Dan to find out where they were. I guess Dan was really tight for money awhile ago and pawned off the guns, a hundred dollars for all four of them.”
“Oh.” I’d always hated shooting; the butt of the gun hurt my shoulder. But I knew how important it was to them. Hunting and fishing were their most important times together. Dan had let Dad down so many times before and had been forgiven generously. But this seemed to be more than Dad could handle – in a second, my brother sold the symbol of everything they had between the two of them.
We don’t talk about the guns, just like we don’t sing and dance anymore. We don’t talk about anything of emotional value in my family. Dad still gets giddy when Dan comes home, even when he brings his live-in girlfriend, Susan, with him. They’ve talked about getting married and having kids together, and I think Dan secretly dreams of taking his own boy hunting with Steve, the dog, or fishing in Logan’s chilly river. But things have never been the same. Dad doesn’t pet black labradors. His guns stay locked in a cabinet in the attic. And a stuffed pheasant, still shiny-green and shiny-red but dusty now, lies on its head, neck bent backward, eyes staring blankly at the cold cement of our two-car garage.
*Norman Maclean, A River Runs Through It (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1976).