A Flash Fiction by Julie Benesh
Publish or perish. Last year, quarantining, should have been the perfect time to work on my research and avoid the fate of the Permanent Visitor. But working at home during quarantine, I got so anxious and distracted, everything blurring into mush. Sometimes you have to …get away. Business people decided the word “retreat,” describing a corporate junket, sounded cowardly, briefly relabeling them “advances,” betraying gender bias and, ultimately, #MeToo connotations. But, I’m a woman and a professor of business psychology, specialization in Jungian organizational interventions. I know my yin and yang. So, after the blessed vaccine percolated through my body the requisite amount of time, I flew to my favorite Santa Barbara resort– retreating, if you will, to advance my research and hopefully maintain my employment.
I stayed in my favorite oceanfront room, and I was getting my mojo back, until my third day there. I was awakened from a restorative sleep by a knock at my door, where, inexplicably, stood my mom, my dad, and a man resembling character actor J.K. Simmons. I figured he was either my mom’s latest boyfriend and/or my dad’s personal trainer/life coach because Dad looked fit and fab, like he lived in Santa Barbara himself. He had a classic tennis cardigan, sleeves knotted over an anchor-patterned polo shirt, and slender cut taupe pants discreetly hugging his toned glutes and legs. The only familiar item part of his ensemble was the deck shoes, which looked entirely different without their usual Iowa Hawkeye hoodie and stained sweatpant teammates.
Out of habit and an abundance of caution, we all refrained from hugging or handshakes.
“We didn’t want to just call you up. We wanted to tell you in person,” my mother was saying, her tone apologetic, as ever. My nose itched, and I felt queasy. Was my mother engaged to J.K. Simmons, and, if so, what did my dad have to do with it? They’d been apart for more than a decade.
I remembered how my mother cried when she saw Dad’s black and white retirement party pictures. He was only 59 at the time but, in the pictures, he looked 75, with deep lines and shadows. “That photographer was too good,” he had said. In retrospect, his retirement was the beginning of the end. They drifted apart, separated, and eventually divorced.
Now I looked at my dad, and he smiled reassuringly. That’s when I noticed his teeth, all in place like in his old portrait in his officer uniform, before the painful army dental work and subsequent dentistry phobia and alcohol anesthesia whose vicious cycle left him toothless. I ran my tongue over my own teeth—I had them cleaned and whitened four times a year.
“Are you a dentist?” I asked J.K.Simmons, and he frowned in response.
“He’s a grief counselor from the insurance,” said my mom. “He’s here to help us say goodbye to your dad.” Her voice got lower. “He passed away yesterday.”
Oh, god. Every time I saw my dad, I knew it could be the last. So hearing he had died was not as shocking as seeing him all tricked out in my room, despite it being so much sadder.
“That’s so nice…” I began “…I mean, so nice of you to come all this way to tell me. But I don’t quite understand how Dad can be here and…there… at the same time.” My voice caught on the “there” and I could feel a welling behind my eyes and in my chest.
My best friend had a thing for angels—she collected them. Beautiful as he was, Dad didn’t look like one; no wings or flowing hair or musical instruments. I didn’t say the word “ghost” but it also hovered in the air like, well…you know. And I’d read about bardos, those Buddhist afterlife jails, and I wondered if my dad were in one, trying to move on, and, if so, were the rest of us even for real, or just cosmic props? I pinched my arm and it reddened and hurt, but I didn’t wake.
Dad ran his hand over his silver mane and my mother gazed at him, glared at JK and glanced toward me. He was too solid to be a hologram, then I remembered the documentary about the Japanese customer service robots and it struck me as the only thing that made any sense at all. Dad 2.0, as memento.
Everything had been so crazy the past year, and mostly crazy-bad, but within the crazy-badness had been, hints of progress, of betterment, renewal. Techno-fixes.
“Can I…umm…keep him?”
J.K. Simmons, suddenly seeming utterly miscast as a grief counselor, pursed his lips just like they always pay him to do, and said, “Do you really have that kind of plastic to burn through?”
I imagined acrid, toxic smoke, then realized that he meant money, like he had flubbed his lines which probably read “dough” or “coin,” or he was improvising, trying to twist a cliché into a fresh metaphor, (though why not “Bitcoin”?) and that Android Dad (Andrad?) was a demo, like a free sample test-drive, and J.K. deploying the reverse psychology of the neg. My promotion, once I got it, would net me a 7% increase–my dad had always lauded my ambition, saying all he ever tried to do was get by– but I sensed even that might yet be insufficient.
Reaching for my phone, I realized its camera could never do this moment justice, and a more advanced app for recording would no doubt be proprietary. I set it down.
Perhaps I could rely on my own mind to remember him this way, new and improved, or perhaps merely restored, the exact way he was meant to have been all along.
Probably not; none of the above.
I supposed I would have to manage to live with that, too.
An alum of Warren Wilson College’s MFA Program for Writers, Julie Benesh is the recipient of an Illinois Arts Council Grant. Her writing can be found in Bestial Noise: A Tin House Fiction Reader, Tin House Magazine (print), Crab Orchard Review, Florida Review, Gulf Stream, Cleaver, Journal of Compressed Creative Arts, New World Writing, and many other places and is forthcoming in Hobart and Drunk Monkeys.