My dad exhales the smoke from his Marlboro and, though I hold my breath, it sneaks up my nose, stale and invasive. We sit in the rocking chairs on his porch, looking into the thick woods surrounding his cabin.
“Tell me about school,” he commands, each word a smoke ring.
“It’s fine,” I breathe out, turning my head toward my lap, hoping the angle will shield me from the sweet smell of tobacco and his questions.
He sucks his crooked yellow teeth, a muted warning to tread carefully.
“That’s not what your Mama told me.”
“I thought you two don’t talk,” I say, used to being the filter in communication between my parents.
“We talk about you, Shelby,” he says quietly before taking another drag, long and slow. “And the child support the old hag wants to leech off me,” he adds with a bitter laugh before looking at me. I realize I’m supposed to be laughing too, laughing at my mother who hasn’t done anything funny. I offer a smile – or a grimace disguised as a smile, my usual costume during this weekly masquerade with my father.
We sit on his front porch for two hours every Thursday after school. I used to come over more, spend every other weekend. But that was before the accident. Before he was let go from the warehouse, before the mood swings, before the disappearing. He lost a leg, but we lost him.
The last weekend I spent with him was when I was ten. I was alone in the house for a day and a half, waiting until Mama came to pick me up. I used to wait for him when I was younger like one waits for the late county bus – impatient, but hopeful it’s trying to stay on schedule. I’ve stopped waiting; I’ve got a car now.
We sit in silence for a while, and I wonder if he’ll yell at me for taking out my phone to check the time. Ever since I learned to drive, I don’t get the built-in excuse of Mama picking me up.
“Tell me about school,” he echoes, lighting up another and adjusting his residual limb.
I think about Mr. Cash’s too-white, too-many teeth smiling down at me in Math, his cement hand on my back while he looks at my work over my shoulder. I think about the backward letters in English and eating lunch in the bathroom.
“I like Art the best,” I finally say with a shrug, looking down the dirt driveway and dodging the full-frontal attack of fresh smoke. I imagine the feeling of paint gliding across a canvas, finding solace in the remembered smell of acrylics.
“You always were good at that,” he replies, smug. I glance back at him and his eyes are closed, a proud smile on his face. I want to tell him he didn’t earn that smile, that the only person who can wear it is Mama. But she hasn’t taken that smile out in a while. It’s probably at the bottom of her Sunday best box, sealed since the divorce and forgotten in the back of her closet.
Something breaks open in me at that smile, resentment seeping into my blood and bubbling in my chest. I feel my mouth crumple into a grimace, and I look away, worried he’ll snap when he sees himself reflected in my face. I take a deep breath, forcing his anger out of my system, before looking back at him. He cracks an eye open and I freeze like a rabbit before a fox.
“Will you make me something?” he asks, serious as he studies me. “Anything you want.”
“I’ll make you something,” I nod. “If you make me a promise.” The words hijack my mouth, stealing control from my brain.
“A negotiator,” he chuckles, ashing his cigarette and twisting to face me. His chapped lips tip up into a grin and shallow wrinkles create a map on his forehead as he raises his dark brows. “Just like your granddaddy. Name your terms.”
I narrow my eyes at him like I’m sizing him up. In reality, I’m trying to think of what to say, navigating the dark waters of his temper.
Don’t make me come back here.
Am I becoming angry like you?
Remember when I was a kid and we would go to the County Fair? Could we do that this year?
Stop laughing at Mama.
Be my dad again.
“Quit smoking and I’ll paint you something,” I finally say, settling on the only thing I think won’t set him off.
It works; he laughs. It’s deep and loud, ricocheting off the trees around us.
“I’ll think about it, little girl,” he replies with a nod.
We sit in silence, smoke hanging between us until it dissipates, just like we will.
Sky Sprayberry is a DC-based fiction writer. When she’s not writing, she can be found in her garden, trying to get her sleeve unhooked from a rosebush’s thorns. Follow her @writtenbysky on Twitter.