Why would my mother put a box in the oven? And how long has it been there? I try to remember the last time I saw her cooking. Was it right after she lost her job and stopped leaving the house? I sit with both hands on top of the box and my eyes closed. Put it back. Put it back. Put it back. I want to. Hidden things should stay hidden. There are hinges and a latch. I lift the latch. My hands are shaking. My reaction is pathetic, like my body already knows what’s inside of this thing, but it doesn’t. At least not that I can remember. I push back the lid. Everything after that happens to someone who isn’t me.
Bones. Tiny human bones. I am frozen. My hands claw the air above the box. I don’t know how much time goes by with me looking into the coffin. I’ve seen this before. Haven’t I? It feels familiar—the panic, the disgust, the slow numbing. All of it. Even as I close the lid and walk stiffly back to the oven, I have an eerie sense of deja vu. What am I supposed to do? Confront my mother? Call the police? I stare down at the oven door, the tomb to this tiny human. The box is heavy; I rest it on my hip and feel the bones slide around. I quickly adjust the box, instead cradling it in my arms like a baby. The doorbell rings, and all of a sudden I’m shaking.
I open the oven and carefully slide the child inside. I feel as if I am going to be sick. A knock at the door. I have to answer it before my mother wakes up, angry. I run to open it, glancing once more over my shoulder at the tiny coffin in the oven.
It’s the mailman. He has never come to the door before, let alone rang the bell that hasn’t worked since before I was born. The eating house, I think. It’s up to something. My face must show my surprise. He rubs a hand sheepishly across his face and clears his throat.
“It wouldn’t fit in the mailbox,” he says. For the first time I notice the package in his hands. I make to tell him that it’s not ours. We don’t get packages, but he reads my mother’s name off the label, so I unlatch the chain.
He nods at me before he walks away, and now I am holding a different box in my hands, my knees knocking beneath my white dress. There is a ball of tension inside me. It pulls tighter and tighter until I walk back into the house. I carry the box to my mother’s door. I can hear her stirring inside her bedroom, so I leave it there for her to find, and tiptoe downstairs and out of the house.
When I talk to my father for the first time, I think he’s going to fall backward down the stairs. I wait for him near the front door, on the usual night his cherry red Mustang pulls along the curb. He doesn’t see me when he comes in, carrying a brown paper shopping bag, ignoring the lightless room to his left, which is usually empty. I sit on a threadbare piece of furniture, left from my grandmother’s days, and wait for him to reach the stairs. I want to observe him without him observing me. When he’s two up, I say his name. The sound of startled paper lets me know he’s jumped in surprise.
“Howard Delafonte,” I say. He stays where he is, the back of his heels hanging off the second-to-last stair. “I imagine I get my shoulders from you. Did you play football in college? Shit, what a waste if you didn’t. I don’t really know anything about football. I don’t have a television, you know. Oh yes, you do know, don’t you? Was that your awesome idea?”
I hear him setting down his bag, while the floorboards creak overhead. I imagine that my mother is the one with her ear pressed to the walls now. Too frightened to put a stop to our meeting, but perhaps a little curious as well.
He comes to stand in the living room, his eyes searching for me among the shadows. When he sees my form, sitting quietly on the couch, he clears his throat and walks over to turn on the floor lamp.
“May I call you Daddy? Or does it sound odd coming from a white trash girl like me?”
He says nothing. There is a greasy yellow light between us now.
“Never mind,” I say, standing up. “I’ll stick with Howard. Or Mayor Delafonte. That’s what everyone else calls you, isn’t it?” I get up and walk around the couch ‘til we are standing face to face. It’s the first time I’ve been this close to him, and I can actually see his features. He looks like me: broad face, eyes spaced too far apart, so lightly blue they almost blend into the whites. He’s ugly, and strange, and striking, and I want to hate him, but I can’t, because he has the same flaxen hair that I have. It falls in the same odd way around his eyes. I look into his eyes, hoping to see contrition, a fondness he harbored without words. But what I see there is fear of me. Fear of what I can say about him—how my words, if directed the right way, can reach his friends at the country club, his cow-faced wife at home who never did die of her illness, his legitimate children at their Ivy League colleges. The thousands of voters … the news.
It’ll be out of the bag now, Papa, I want to say. Except I don’t make empty threats, and I have no intention of ratting out the secret life of Howard Delafonte.
I wait. I’ve daydreamed about this moment for so long, the moment my father says honest to God words to me. But, he says nothing. He’s waiting for me to speak, and without that he has nothing to say. I feel a crushing truth that can’t be reversed or unseen. It’s a black hole that starts near my heart and moves outward. I thought that when I met my father—the obscure man who I pictured having a broad, smiling face—he would embrace knowing me. He’d be delighted at this new relationship prospect, the chance to know his offspring, a girl who got excellent grades and was capable of taking care of herself. In my daydreams, my father never rejects me. I am ill prepared for this reality. He has nothing to say. When I realize I’m not going to get what I want, which at this point is a simple acknowledgment, I take a step back. My insides feel oily. There are too many paths of disappointment, too many ways that this can make me disappear.
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