My father was a man of rough edges, not like I remember most of those edges when all I can remember in my child’s mind is being read bedtime stories at night, eating snacks together, and watching the news while he cursed away at the screen and chuckled at my questions about what was happening in the world. He may have had rough edges but I remember much good of the man who was always there for me and working hard when he wasn’t. I remember the normal house I grew up in until things just weren’t anymore – weren’t normal at all.
My mother was a grade school teacher who made enough to get by. With a small family of one child (bouncy little me), a husband, and herself to support, life wasn’t so hard. But without that last bit of income, everything was in jeopardy and could fall apart to pieces. My mother brought home with her slammed doors and new applications to be filled out and brought to jobs all over the city where she was looking for new work. Occasionally her anger would get a little out of hand and she would take it out on my father – and though I don’t remember much about that time in our lives, I do remember key things she said to him. “Get a real job, Larry, it’s about damn time!” My father was the hardest working man I knew. He spent long hours on the road, even days at a time, and even longer ones in his workshop.
When I hit kindergarten age, my father was on the road a lot more and life seemed to be getting a bit easier. He was bringing home good money and we were able to relax and have decent meals again at suppertime. Things could only continue on that way for so long, though, as the story goes.
One day my father didn’t return home.
My mother embraced me in a hug after the second day of not knowing where my father could be. I had climbed off the bus and directly into her arms, where she sobbed above my head and struggled to find the words. Suddenly they came, and they hit me like a brick: I’m so sorry, Tia, but your father is dead.
I was young and impressionable. Yes, I had grown thus far around a mother and father who surrounded me with as much love as they could give but now I’d have to move on to this newest segment in my life without one of the parties. As somebody who had seen pieces constantly get broken and picked up again in life by everyone around her, I decided this was just another thing for me to handle. That I would handle it.
My mother somehow did well over the years to come, even though work was scarce. Money was surely coming from somewhere, and the small income gave us enough to graduate from beans and wieners to occasional burger and steak meals. Living with my mother was never so bad and she did everything she could to stabilize a future for me and keep me happy. She did everything she could have ever wished to do for me. Everything my father would have ever wished for me as well.
On my tenth birthday, I had been sitting in my room listening to my music and writing in a new journal with a fancy pen my mother had bought me. I heard her rushing around the house downstairs and immediately thought, “She’s planning a birthday party for me and inviting the whole family!” like any child would think when they hear their mother frantically rushing from room to room, seemingly getting things in order. I walked to the edge of the stairs and stared down so that I wouldn’t get caught, and saw my mother pacing from room to room like a madwoman. She was shaking her head and I swore I saw tears running from her eyes. In her hands, there was a small brown box that she was clasping with all her might as if letting go would induce the end of the world.
I said nothing and clamped my mouth shut as such, waiting until she was finished with her distraught antics. Finally, she sat on the couch with the box beside her and put her head in her hands. I tiptoed back to my bedroom like some secret dance and didn’t even bother to close the door behind me.
The event was strange, sure, but for a few years it escaped my mind like all the math tests I had ever taken in the past and every single Shakespeare novel I had ever read. Grade school turned much fiercer as I entered high school and, at fifteen, I returned home from school one day on my birthday to hear my mother rustling things in the basement.
“Mom?” I called out, but I received no answer. Except for pure silence.
“Hey, mom?” I called again, this time a bit closer to the basement door.
“Sweetie!” she shouted back up in a hurry, her voice seemingly panicked. “I’ll be up in a second…make yourself a snack or something and then we’ll talk about school.”
“Mom, what are you doing down there? Spring cleaning or something?”
Before she had a chance to answer, I pulled open the basement door and hurried on down the steps. When my footsteps reached the final step, the lights flicked off and my mother could be heard racing toward me. “Go on, Tia! Go on up the steps. Let’s go.”
I backed up a bit but the little bit of light given way from the upstairs kitchen revealed boxes stacked behind my mother, ones I had never seen before. She had pulled a shelf out of the way that was usually in the stack’s spot and was stacking them against the wall like a distribution market.
“Mom, what are all those boxes? What – what is this?”
My mother and I sat in the den with over 20 boxes around us, each various shapes and sizes. She admitted defeat and sat on the loveseat while I sat crisscross style on the floor with a box cutter to break through the tape on the outside of the boxes.
“I can’t imagine what they are. I don’t think I want to know.”
I shot a glance in my mother’s direction. “I can’t believe you kept these from me.”
“Tia,” my mother said firmly, but then her face softened and her voice changed to something much more alluring and compassionate. “You don’t know about your father like I do. His line of work… it put a lot at stake for us.”
“I’d rather you not talk about him that way,” I said as I opened the first box to reveal packaging, which I ripped apart with my hands. When all of the packing was strewn around me on the floor, I was holding a doll. It was small – much smaller than the box, much smaller than I had expected. A note with it scrawled in his handwriting, “Happy birthday, my darling. Wish I was there to spend it with you.” The doll had a musky smell to it, and awkward, old color choices with patches of lovely, blonde hair in curls and a dress made out of some dainty fabric.
“Dolls?” I asked, looking at my mother. I rubbed my finger along the back of the doll and noticed her lifelike skin and the smell of her. Just how surreal she felt to me, like I was holding a real baby. “Mom…what exactly did Dad do before he died?”
“Oh, sweetie,” she whispered back to me as if I had asked the worst question known to man.
“Mom, I want to know…” I trailed, reaching my hand into another box and pulling out only the second set of dolls. Their all-to-real eyes staring back at me, and that musky and familiar smell wafting around the room.
“Honey…your father was a contract killer.”
I sat, stunned, in the middle of the room, unable to talk and finding it much harder to breathe. The dolls fell out of my lap and onto the floor where they rolled away and bumped into more boxes – the reminder that there were many more dolls inside, waiting to be uncovered. Many more secrets.
“Honey, your father is still alive and misses you very much. He’s safer where he’s at now… but retiring isn’t an option if he wants to give you everything we need for you.”
The smell of death rose around me from the dolls slowly rotting on the floor, and the many folded notes my father had left me over the past few years waiting to be read.