It’s four a.m. on my father’s birthday, and he’s in his red- sleep, the kind where his skin pulses the color of roast beef and his wedding ring looks ingrown. This is his don’t- wake- me- for- three- days kind of sleep, the face- down- on- the- tile kind of sleep, which is where he is now, naked, on my parents’ bathroom floor.
I said wake the fuck up, ass-blob. My mother pushes her bare foot into his back until it leaves a yellow- white imprint. A dead body color. My father moans, and the sound drools out onto the tiles. His eyes wink on like lagging televisions. My mother curses in Chinese—you fucking fat cow!— the only Chinese phrase we both still use.
Why does he sleep on the floor like this? I ask. Your bed is so nice.
One day you’ll understand how good a floor can feel, she says.
It’s true: their bed is nice. I sleep in it sometimes. Night terrors don’t leave me alone come three a.m. lately— the shadows of limbs behind my windows, visions of blown- off faces with dangling eyeballs— and my parents are always awake, up to something, alive.
He plays dead because cold tile feels good to fucking fat cows after double fisting Sambucas all night with strippers, says my mother, each word louder than the one before it.
Sometimes, mom buckles me into the car in the middle of the night to collect my father from these strippers. That’s the word she uses: collect. My father is always in need of collecting. The strippers seem sweet to me. They swing their shoes by the straps, tap their nails against my mother’s car window, saying, Come on Chinadoll, relax, it’s nothing. They call my father Big Boss, or Mad Man, depending on the night.
My mother walks over to the bedroom closet. She claws into my father’s hanging clothes and tosses each item at his body— limp, cotton skins.
Both of you, get dressed, she says. We’re going for a drive.
My mother drives without saying a word. No music. No radio. I am curled up in the backseat, surprised to see that my father’s face is not asleep but alert. His eyes are wet and wide in that orange glow of night- road, that perfect combination of street lamp and moonlight that casts a terrific sadness, or wildness, on any face in its spell. I wonder if he and my mother will touch each other.
Sometimes, mom buckles me into the car in the middle of the night to collect my father from these strippers. That’s the word she uses: collect.
Where we going? he says. I have never heard my father’s voice— which is usually brass and gravel and all
New York— go soft.
My mother doesn’t say a word. She stays focused on the road, fingers gripped around the steering wheel, leaning into it. She’s in another world, I think.
Honey? Hello? You hear me?
We are headed to the Florida Everglades, a one- hour drive from our house in Boca Raton. I know this because every school in South Florida takes a field trip here, and every kid hates it. On our class trip, we wore mosquito masks and ear plugs and rode through the murky waters on an airboat. The whole thing smelled like swamp shit. A giant fan blasted as our boat moved through tall grasses, gators swiveling around us in the bright, wheezing landscape. I didn’t learn anything.
Now, in the car, the grasses are thin, bleached bodies in our head- lights. I touch the backseat window with my toes, as if I might be able to feel their scrape. There are no other cars, no signs or signals.
How you doing back there, kid? My father moves his arm back to give me three quick pats on the cheek. He does this when he’s in trouble— loves me like this. It’s his way of reminding my mother than he can function in the world in more ways than one. He can be a father, a family man, and also the Big Boss.
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I don’t say a word either. I love my father more than anyone, for reasons I have yet to understand, but I feel more loyal to my mother. This is what I write about in my diary most days, though I haven’t stacked up the logic. All I know is that I want my father to enjoy our car ride together, but I will also bite his hand if it comes near me again.
You know, honey, if the kid wasn’t in the backseat—
My mother looks at him now, though she still says nothing.
I’m just sitting here thinking to myself: Self, if the kid wasn’t here and all—
She smiles, slanted and deviant.
People would find me, you know, he says. The Everglades— typical. Police would troll this place first. If the kid wasn’t here . . . you know your kid is in here, right? She’s no dummy even if you think so. She’s watching all of this. She’s old enough to talk. Can somebody fucking say something?
If the kid wasn’t here. I am used to these words.
We finally pull up to a wooden fence, a damp field. In the middle of the field there’s a basket the size of a small car. Beside the basket, a striped sheet of reds and purples rippling far across the grass like a bloody sea.
What’s all this now?
A balloon ride.
I don’t do heights.
Happy birthday, you fucking fat cow.
What we are is up in the air. My mother stands in the corner of the balloon basket, all on her own, loving it. She closes her eyes and stretches her arms to feel the first hot slab of sunrise. She looks so peaceful here, just like this, and I know she would jump if she could, if she could do it fast enough, before getting caught and dragged back in by her sneakers. She could tilt her weight head- first and leave us here— simple. Years later, when she swallows a bottle of pills and survives the overdose, I wonder if she considers this moment on the balloon— the sun, clear air, Kealani— what could have been a sure thing.
Can we quiet it down a sec? says my father. I need a sec. I need to relax.
Can’t, captain, says our balloon man. He wears overalls. Tiny, fish teeth. His name, we learn, is Dwayne. Dwayne turns a valve to get the fire going every couple of minutes. It’s a deafening sound, meant to keep the balloon warmer than the atmosphere, meant to keep us afloat.
I have never seen my father afraid of anything, but here he is, knuckles bulging like popcorn, his chest thumping wild. He stares down, and then up, and then back at me, shaking. The day stings against my arms.
I need something to drink or I’ll be sick, says my father.
Aye, aye, captain. Dwayne opens the mouth of a cooler, uncorks a bottle of champagne into the dirty rag in his fist. He pours the gold liquid into a plastic chute until it dribbles over. He hands it to my father, who chugs it down. The foam catches on the scratch of his chin.
What is this?
It’s what we’ve got, sir.
I need a drink.
Sir, it’s all we have.
I’ll drink the fuel, says my father, looking up into the flames. Dwayne laughs a vibrating cackle and pats my father on the back. I look at the fuel tanks in the center of the basket. I count them.
Up here, the only sound from below is the dogs. After the valve is opened, after each blast of heat, the dogs bark in unison all over South Florida. I can’t tell if they feel terrified or empowered by our sound, but somehow I feel safe with them down there, in time with our flight, listening. I look at the Everglades, the strands of water swerving up to the highways, ophidian.
If I screamed, would the dogs hear that, too? I ask.
Prob’ly not, says Dwayne. It’s the pitch is all wrong.
I know this, of course. I am a very quiet girl. Even the dogs would miss me.
Nice birthday gift your honey got you here, Dwayne says to my father. Renting out the whole gig like this. Pretty penny.
I got money, says my father. His face is shining with sweat. He rests his forehead against his arms crossed on the edge of the basket, lifts it, sets it down, lifts it, sets it down. I grab his wrist and dig my thumb into the soft underside of it, something he has done for me before, on boats, when I am yakking into the deep blue. Let it out, he has said, chum the boat.
Got the life, don’t you? says Dwayne.
Guess so, says my father.
Some life we got, says my mother.
I have a pony, I say.
We’ve got money, says my father.
In twenty minutes, it’s time to land. The winds have picked up, and our balloon is headed south, toward Miami.
Can’t you just turn it around? asks my father.
You can’t steer a balloon, says Dwayne, you ride Mother Nature.
Dwayne focuses on dials, flips switches, and ties cords around a hook to open some vents in the balloon. He wants to level out the air temperature, he says, until we fall. Ropes slide in and out of his hands.
Chase car will come get us, he says, wherever we land. God’s judgment from here.
God is dead, says my father.
Can’t we ride it all the way into the ocean? says my mother.
I can’t swim, I say. Remember? They don’t.
As we descend, the dogs get louder. I think I hear every single one of them. The wind carries us west in rapid jerks, and my father sinks down inside the balloon until he is sitting, clasping his knees.
We won’t make a field, Dwayne says. Hold on.
I have never seen my father afraid of anything, but here he is, knuckles bulging like popcorn, his chest thumping wild.
We float down to a cul-de-sac where every house is painted in a Candy Land palette. I pick a favorite house— mint colored, like my Auntie T’s— and squeeze the wicker as we inch closer and closer to it. Dwayne leans with his ropes. Incoming!
Our basket skids across the shingles of the minty house’s roof. The shingles flip like the scales of a gator. A few ping off. We bonk off the cullis as Dwayne tugs at more cords, lets more air in and out of our balloon. He does not panic as a man exits the house in his bathrobe.
The hell you doing, landing on my house!
We hit the man’s lawn with a thud. The basket begins to tip as the envelope of the balloon gets caught up with another wind. My mother laughs maniacally, clapping her hands. My father opens the basket door and collapses on the grass.
Who’s paying for this roof? the man screams. Look at this roof! The bald sheen of his head is amazing.
Happy birthday, my mother says to no one.
Good excuse for a home makeover! says Dwayne.
I want to go again, I say.
I hop out of the basket and find my legs. I watch my father crawl his way across the lawn, dry heaving, pulling clumps of grass between his fingers. As a boy, my father made a black cape with a chain around the neck and wore it everywhere: the dentist’s office, the dinner table, school, Temple. The neighbor kids teased him so badly his mother threw it away.
He stands up, wipes the dirt from his pockets.
* * *
From Long Live the Tribe of Fatherless Girls by T Kira Madden. Copyright © 2019 T Kira Madden. Reprinted courtesy of Bloomsbury Publishing.
Editor: Sari Botton