Our Fathers Leave Us

He was working with his cauldron out in the garage, trying, again, to make gold from lawnmower grease, and he was getting pretty close. When a drop of his hard-earned sweat fell into the black pot, a promising brassy substance fizzed over its edges.

“Now we’re cooking with gas!” my father said, crouching down to slap his knees, his slight paunch folding into soft rolls over the waist of his jeans. I was watching from outside—the windows coated in a smeared vellum of dust and Vaseline—and began jumping up and down in excitement, which alerted him to my presence, which was normally not a good thing. But he was in a celebratory mood, glad I was there to witness his achievement.

“Come on in, kid! Check out what I’ve done,” he said and I, flushed with pride, ran to the normally locked door, which clicked open the moment I reached it. My father stood in the doorway, no longer a silhouette of refusal and ash but an opened-armed shadow (backlit by halogen lights), and I smashed my face against his chest and he closed his hairy arms around me. It was a real moment. Then he released me into his menagerie. I stumbled over a tortured metal object, perhaps once a wheel bearing.

“Your mom said I couldn’t do it. You heard her, right? But we’re close now, kid. We’re super close. I think maybe just another month and I’ll have this puppy up and running,” he said, walking over to his cauldron and patting the side, making a tinny echo. Across the walls were anatomical drawings and diagrams of machines I didn’t recognize, my father’s inscrutable writing in the margins, and images that made even less sense: a wheel inside the sun, the jaw of a canine stretched open to reveal a knife where the tongue should be, a seal with a working submarine engine inside, complete with a tiny engineer, a tiny hat on his head. They were connected by red twine in a wild web. I noticed my father’s smell, his potent sweat. He’d let his beard grow in scraggly patches.

“How long have you been in here?” I asked. Since he’d quit his job at the rocket factory, he’d spent more and more time in the garage. He didn’t even eat meals at the family table anymore, and his absence had precipitated a noticeable change in my mother’s cooking. She used to serve broiled and perfectly seasoned meats, beautifully braised vegetables, savory side dishes. Last night she’d brought home fried chicken and jojos from the grocery deli, placed the small, individual packets of warm ranch dressing beside our plates. Sometime in the months of my father’s garage sojourn, she’d bought herself a silver drink shaker. Each night after dinner, and sometimes before, she’d throttle the shaker until wisps of her honey-colored hair fell from her bun, and then pour out the drink into a martini glass, always frowning a little before the first sip. The cupboards were growing thin of actual food and full of fifths and small bottles of bitters. I mentioned one night that I’d really like some of her lasagna and she snapped, “I’m not a saint.”

I tried to imagine what kind of saint might serve baked noodle dishes. Staring at the lukewarm fried chicken, I tried to imagine her lasagna there instead, but at the gooey, tender center of my vision, I was alarmed to find a hollow iron ball with my father inside, scrawling on the black walls with black ink, feverish with concentration.

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