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Fiction: Father figure

Sometimes, you have to make your own luck.

By Alix Strauss

Flight Fact: About 50,000 bodies are air-shipped yearly and travel under the name Jim Wilson, which is code for a cadaver traveling as airplane cargo.

Darlene looks at the chips in her own hands, studies the colors, feels their weight. So light, so much power, so much importance. She lifts the $250 green one with red and white stripes up to her nose and inhales. It smells of old sweat. She thinks about how many people have touched this exact one. Rubbed it for luck — something she has never had. Kissed it when it worked. Cursed it, and her, when it didn’t. The chip was given to her last year as a tip from a man who won $10,000 at her table, and even though she sprayed it with perfume when she got home, it still smells like the casino. Like the men who play there.

She often thinks about the people who sit around her felt-covered tables as she deals cards. She wonders if the men, the ones who are slumped over at all hours of the night and well into day, the ones who smoke fat cigars, who have big bellies and hardy laughs, whose raspy voices are rich with Southern twang, like her relatives, know her father. If these men, who insist visiting Atlantic City as a rite of passage, would be friends with a man she knew little about. She wonders if his love of cards and gambling and money is what drew her here. If he’s the reason his 40-year-old, divorced daughter is a blackjack dealer at Caesar’s.

She’s been stuck here for the past eight years dealing to the same types of men, all of whom have become nothing more than a blur of faces and laughter and drink orders.

Smoke and cheap cologne. Striped shirts and low belted pants. These are not good ol’ boys with good Southern, Georgian manners. These are men, like her father, who hunt and fish and fight. They own guns and cattle, are Hemingway-esque with big vibratos and even bigger tempers. They possess not an ounce of femininity like her brother Rick, or her cousin Bobby, who is married to a lovely man in Massachusetts, where they live with their adopted sons, whom no one on her father’s side acknowledges.

She wonders if any of these men at her table today would be strong enough to be the pallbearers at her father’s funeral, which will take place in less than 38 hours.

Darlene remembers the sound of chips clanking together as they hit the wrought-iron table. Of chairs scraping the porch’s wooden floor. Of ice clinking against glass, sloshing along the side bourbon, whiskey, and scotch. She remembers the noise the men would make outside on hot summer nights, their voices fighting the crickets and palmetto bugs. Fighting each other.

Her father’s card games happened every Tuesday and Thursday night for as long as she could remember. Though her mother hated having the men over, Darlene adored it. She served the drinks in tall glasses with hearts and spades printed on them. Handed out plates heaped with grits and biscuits slathered in butter, fried chicken, or lamb with mint jelly. The men would pat her on the head, tell her father what a wonderful helper he had. And when she used the words she picked up from past games — “full house,” “ante-up,” and “shit Jack’s wild,” everyone would laugh. She’d look at her father, who’d smile and wink at her, his hands busy with the cards, his mouth busy with a cigar.

“Maybe I should teach her to hunt instead of Rick. Christ, she’s more man than he’ll ever be.” And the men would laugh, toss chips on to the table, toss their heads back, and finish their drinks.

“James, didn’t you get that boy of yours a rifle last Christmas?”

“Yes indeed. Ain’t never been touched.”

“Shit, give that beauty to her, she’d probably catch more than he would.”

It was true. She knew it, and so did her father.

All James Jordan ever wanted were winners. Neither of his kids were, or so he always told them.

“Darlene, take off that apron and give it to your brother,” he’d say, as a smoky haze hovered over his head.

At ten, Darlene already knew there was a meanness fathers shouldn’t show their children. She hated how they all laughed. Hated her father for instigating it, then encouraging it. She wanted to tell them how foolish they were, that while they made fun of her older brother, his delicate hands — the ones disinterested in holding a gun — were the same ones that made their dinner which dripped from their mouths, stuck to their fingers, and were smeared onto the cards, their napkins, and glasses. But she didn’t. She wanted the rifle.

Wanted her father’s wink. Wanted a seat at his table.

All James Jordan ever wanted were winners. Neither of his kids were, or so he always told them.

It was her father’s sister, Loretta, who’d phoned at 5:23pm last night, her voice shaky, her words hard to decipher in between her sobs. She’d said that he had died a few moments ago. That liquor had taken her father. Eaten away at his liver, turning him yellower and yellower with every drink he insisted on swallowing. Every bottle of Jack Daniels the nurse tried to hide. Every bar stool he fell off. And even though she knew it was coming — the call, the slow death sentence, the plane ticket that would need to be purchased for the first flight out to Georgia, the having to miss work — it was all still a shock.

“It’s moments like this when I wish your mamma was still with us,” Loretta had told Darlene. “I called your brother just now and he said he wouldn’t be coming. You’d think he’d put aside his anger at your daddy at a time like this. Their brawl has eaten away almost more than the liquor did. Can’t you talk some sense into him?” There was a resentful pleading in Loretta’s voice, paired by the sound of her inhaling her cigarette.

“I don’t think there’s anything I can say to change his mind. I can try, but I wouldn’t get your hopes up.”

“That’s a start, I guess. I’ll say a prayer about it when I get off the phone. Thank you, Sugar.”

Darlene did as she’d promised; she’d called Rick, but only got his voice message.

Now, almost 14 hours later, her need to connect with him is so great that she tries again while waiting on a ridiculously long line at the Starbucks in the Newark airport.

“I’m still not going,” Rick says when he picks up on the third ring.

“I know,” she confesses.

“You okay?”

“I guess. I don’t know,” she says. She can’t stop her hands from shaking as she digs into her handbag to pay the $4.82 she owes for the cappuccino. A luxury, really, and something she doesn’t often order, but today is special, so she lets herself have this treat.

“Loretta would really like you there. I would as well.”

“I’m not going to pay my respects to a man who didn’t respect me. I mean, really, Darlene,” he says, breathing harshly into the receiver. “I didn’t hear anyone offer to send me a plane ticket. If Loretta wanted me there so badly, she’d have suggested that. Money’s tight and I’ve got a gallery opening here…I’m not changing my life around for him anymore.”

“Miss, can you step down the line while you look for your money?” the Starbucks barista tells Darlene as she fumbles for her wallet. “Just give me the green when you find it.” And then he’s on to the next customer. Seconds later someone else is calling her name, saying her drink is ready. She stops fussing for her wallet and reaches for the cup, which is warm and comforting. “Okay. I get it. I get it,” Darlene says. “I’ll call you later and tell you all about it if you want.”

“Honestly, I don’t. And I can’t believe you’re going, either.”

“How can I not?” Then something moves deep inside her, a ringing starts in her ears. She looks down at her feet and watches a few tears hit the tips of her shoes. When she glances back up at the boy working the register, he’s too consumed with other people to worry about whether or not she’ll return.

She’s never done anything like this before, even this small. Darlene is a good girl. Kind and warmhearted in all the right places, plump and out of shape in all the wrong ones. She’s never been in trouble at work, nor has she ever been fired from a job. She wasn’t popular in high school and she isn’t popular here. She’s never been asked to go out drinking with the other female dealers after the end of a shift, and though that saddens her, she’s learned to not ask, either. She wishes her mother were still alive. That she wasn’t divorced. That she didn’t live in New Jersey. That she had the kind of luck she saw other people have every single day at the casino.

She thinks about what her father would say. “Screw ’em. They have millions. You work hard. You’re owed the drink.” And then, as if it’s happening to someone else, she walks away, the drink in her hand, the phone held up to her ear by her shoulder, her brother still talking about the heat and the bad timing and how much he hated their father. The room spins a little. She feels slightly light-headed, tipsy, and sober at the same time.

The dizziness follows her into the bathroom. The florescent lights make her head throb. She feels faintish and sweaty as she slips into the handicap stall. The shaking is so strong that she can’t steady her squatting body and as she stands, realizes she’s left pee all over the seat. She tries to pull toilet paper from the dispenser to clean up her mess, but the roll remains motionless. Only tiny pieces, as if a rat has chewed through the roll, drop to the floor.

Frustrated, she pulls at the paper until she’s able to obtain enough to wipe herself. “Screw it,” she says. She exits the stall, the seat remaining wet, the bowl un-flushed.

Washing her hands, she looks in the mirror. Her pudgy face is round and red, like an apple. Her eyes are bloodshot. Her hair is too long and too brown. In her hurry to catch the 7:45 a.m. plane, she raced through her small apartment grabbing what she could, whether it was clean or not. Now she is makeup-less, dressed in jeans and a frilly flowered sweater. My father is dead. My father is dead. The words are jarring even as she says them to herself. It’s a sentence she understands but can’t comprehend. She thinks about the cappuccino and toilet and how her father would have appreciated that. A smile forms on her face, which feels drawn by a Sharpie. Completely unable to be removed. She might not have made him proud while he was living, but she can still try now that he’s not.

An unfamiliar feeling of claustrophobia rushes through her like hot blood as she stands on line to board her flight. It takes over 25 minutes just for her to inch past First Class. Though her ticket reads 36D, the very back of the plane, she can’t seem to make her body move past the 15th row. Her heart is beating too fast, and her bag has become too heavy. In front of her is an enormous man who’s having his own issues getting through the narrow aisle and behind her people are shoving and yelling, asking her what the problem is and why isn’t she moving. As sure as she knows her father is dead, that’s how sure she knows she has to turn around.

“I’m sorry, I’m sorry,” she tells the irritated people in front of her. “Please, I need to get by you. I’m so sorry. Please.”

When no one shows any sign of accommodating, the hot, prickly sensation turns to a panicked anger.

“Please, I’m going to be sick,” she shouts. “You need to move and let me by.” Only then do people veer out of her way, ducking into seats that aren’t theirs, pushing themselves flat up each other.

By the time she hits First Class, the sight of the blonde flight attendant is so welcoming that Darlene thinks she might cry. She’s desperate for some water and is about to ask for some when she notices 4B is empty. She scans the other seats, all which are occupied by passengers dressed in suits, slacks and fancy sweaters and designer jackets. They have newspapers and champagne, bottles of water, and Bloody Marys. They all seem so relaxed and comfortable in the plush seats with more legroom than she’s ever experienced. Warm washcloths and travel toiletries kits are being handed out, and she can’t remember if, in her haste, she packed any of these items.

She sits in 4B, because no one else has, and because she’s now officially an orphan. She wishes she were dressed better and knows there’s no way she can go back to the 36th row. She’s spent almost a decade standing for eight to ten hours at a time, dealing cards and congratulating strangers and wishing others luck, and today she wants legroom, and the hot towel and the free drinks like the ones the casino serves, and the better meal. My father is dead. My father is dead. If that doesn’t mean she deserves to sit in First Class then she doesn’t know what will. So she tells this to the pretty blonde stewardess.

‘You just holler if you need anything. Well, you don’t have to holler. I told someone to holler once and they did, over and over.’

“I. Am. So. Sorry.” Darlene watches her face drop like a soufflé falling from a loud noise. And without any further discussion, the stewardess lets her remain in 4B. Before she knows it, champagne is being placed in front of her along with the warm cloth, the complimentary toiletry kit, and reading materials.

“My mother passed two years ago,” the stewardess says, patting Darlene’s arm. “Mine’s deceased as well,” Darlene says.

“It’s so hard. You just holler if you need anything. Well, you don’t have to holler. I told someone to holler once and they did, over and over for me.” The stewardess rolls her eyes. “Disturbed all the guests and was a real pain in the ass. I mean, really? What’s wrong with people?”

Loretta is already waiting for Darlene in baggage claim at the Atlanta Airport, doused in perfume and scotch. She’s wearing too much lipstick and eye shadow, making her look like a cheap kewpie doll, like the kind Darlene’s father won her at the state fair when she was seven. Darlene only has the one bag she brought on the plane, and so after a quick hug, which leaves her feeling hollow and distant, they walk out of the airport and head to her father’s home.

“So we won’t have a viewing, Darlin’, because he was so yellow and all. But people are comin’ over to the house tonight to pay their respects. Then tomorrow, I guess everyone will just meet us at the cemetery. Your father didn’t want any special treatment or speeches or anything in a church.” Loretta shakes her head from side to side, her large hoop earrings looking like they might fly off from the velocity.

Darlene watches her childhood blur past her as they drive from the airport into Macon. She looks for a younger version of herself as they pass her high school, the bars her father drank in, the stores her mother shopped at, the hunting academy which they called her father’s second home, the backyard of an old boyfriend, the orchards and playgrounds and parks. Past the house where her mother grew up, past the police station, past the first three decades of her life.

At the stop sign, about a mile away from her childhood home, Loretta is quiet, and Darlene holds her breath as they both stare at the street corner where her mother died. Killed instantly by a hit and run. The only information they knew was that she didn’t suffer. The doctor said the impact was so substantial that she never felt a thing. Not when she hit the windshield or when her head smacked the pavement. She didn’t know she was brought to the hospital. She remained unaware that her husband, whom Darlene had never seen cry before, sobbed over his dead wife’s lifeless, bloody body for over an hour. She didn’t know he went home, loaded two guns, shoved them into his pockets and went searching for the car and driver. He never found either. That was ten years ago. Darlene hasn’t been back since her mother’s funeral, and now here she is again.

“If you mind staying in the house by yourself, you’re more than welcome to stay with me.”

“I appreciate that, but I think this will give me some quiet time.”

“That’s right, you take all the quiet time you need.” And with that, Loretta turns up the radio, on which a country star is singing about being wronged by the man she loved and how she wants to hunt him down and kill him.

Because it’s Thursday, their weekly poker night, the men come over armed with cards and chips and liquor. A tribute. They take their assigned seats outside on the porch, the same ones they’ve occupied for the past 30 years.

All of the other guests, some of whom Darlene knew, some of whom she didn’t, have already left. They milled about for a few hours, shook their heads and sighed, told generous stories about a stubborn, difficult man who was colorful, a kind way of saying “crazy.” And eccentric, a nice way of saying “alcoholic.” But well-liked.

Now, the sound of chips and loud voices melting with the smell of cigar smoke and the balmy air is calming to Darlene. It all cocoons her in memory as she brings out what’s left of the coffee loaf and rum cake to her father’s friends. The empty chair at the head of the table seems out of place and she almost asks if her father is in the den getting another bottle of Jack.

“How you holding up?” Fred Hasting asks.

“Okay. Shocked. Numb.” She shrugs. “I don’t know.”       

“You still at Caesars?” another inquires.


“Bet you’re real good with the cards,” Ed Brog teases. Then, with his hand extended towards her father’s seat: “You might as well. I guess it’s rightfully yours now.”

Darlene cannot move. All of the breath in her body seems to have left her. She’s waited a lifetime for this moment, played it out in her head when she couldn’t sleep.

The next thing she knows, her ass is in the seat, the cards are in her hands, and she shuffles the deck like the pro she’s become, dealing to the kind of men who play at her table in Atlantic City. Dealing to the men who never let her sit here before. It’s as if the last eight years at her shitty job have been leading up to this one night, and her father isn’t here to see it. Anger seeps through her as she wonders why he never came to visit her at the casino. Never knew how fast she counts, how well she shuffles, how professional she looks in her uniform. Never took her out for dinner to say how sorry he was that she was getting divorced. What a jerk Mitch was for cheating on her, and if he could, he’d hunt the piss-ant down, shoot him at close range and add his stuffed, ugly head to the other trophies he hung on the wall in his den from his hunting days. Her throat is closing up and tears are forming in her eyes, but she refuses to cry at the table.

Crying is absolutely prohibited. She’s sure of that, the same way she’s sure she wants her father back. Wants to tell him what an asshole he was. Needs to tell him that as much as she still needs him now.

Her father’s friends exchange glances, raise eyebrows, flash toothy smiles while hands slap the top of the table, making the chips bounce. They tell her how impressed they are, how much her daddy would have loved this.

“Damn, Darlene. You can be part of our game from now on,” Fred says.

“You sure can. Your father would be mighty proud.”

“I bet he’s grinning now,” Ed adds. “Sin he ain’t here to see this.”

The accolades continue even as she sweeps the table clean. She’s become proficient at poker and though she doesn’t want their money, almost $3,100, she takes it. “I’m only doing this for Daddy. He’d be pissed as hell if I didn’t.” The men roar with laughter and nod in approval, increasing her high from the liquor and the winnings and the seat she’s occupying.

Without the men, her aunt, or her father, the house is too quiet for her to sleep.

Her room is dull, like gum that’s lost its flavor. The four-poster bed that was her grandmother’s looks dilapidated. The dresser and vanity are the kinds of antiques someone would leave out on the curb. Aside from a few photos, some scratches and marks in the wall, there is nothing to prove Darlene grew up here. She walks down the hall to her brother’s bedroom, then her parents’ room, which are equally generic and unchanged. It’s as if they all lived in a shrine to an era no one found especially significant or joyful.

She heads downstairs, walks past the living room, and descends to the basement, where her father spent most of his time drinking and watching TV. Once a six-foot-tall, burly man with a barrel chest, broad shoulders, and massive muscular arms, the only exercise his wilted and hunched-over 66-year-old body got was from walking up and down the stairs.

Her father’s den had always been his nirvana. It’s where he kept his gun collection, his bottles of booze, his hunting and fishing gear, his poker chips, cards and score sheets, army memorabilia, boxes of ammunition, cigars, and lighters. His most prized possessions were the heads of animals that he’d killed, decapitated, and stuffed himself, which now hung on the walls. They had frightened Darlene terribly as a child. She had always thought they were looking at her. That they were still alive.

She had tried to enjoy hunting. Tried to use the gun like he showed her. But every time, it would shake in her hands and he would shake his head in disappointment and eventually take the gun back. Though she’d apologize, he’d tell her it wasn’t her fault. He’d pat her on the head, his meaty hand thumping harshly. “At least you tried. That’s more than your brother’s done.”

Their eyes are haunting and glassy, their expressions a mix of hurt and pride. Their fur is soft and she knows they know.

The animals still scare her now as she leans against his desk chair, an old padded leather swivel thing that’s ripped and worn. On the back of the chair is an equally ripped and worn blue-and-black flannel shirt. She puts it on and sits down. She pushes off from the desk and slides haphazardly over to the bar and pours herself some Jack. The swig of bourbon burns as it travels down her throat. She reaches for the used cigar that rests in the nearby ashtray, holds it up to her nose, then sticks it in her mouth, feeling her lips pressed over something her father had placed his own lips over, only days ago.

She stares at the life-like, frozen trophies. So real, so disgusting. Their eyes are haunting and glassy, their expressions a mix of hurt and pride. Their fur is soft and she knows they know. They know and have seen everything. Her eyes move cautiously from the great black bear to the deer to the buck, the elk and the boar.

She finishes the first drink, then reaches for another, painfully aware that the animals are watching. The second drink slips down and disappears from the glass far more easily than the first, as does the third. She sees the gun leaning up against his desk and slides over to that, takes it in her hand. With the shirt on her back, the cigar in her mouth, she holds it up to her shoulder, closes one eye just like her daddy taught her, and aims at the bear. She tries to channel her father now, telling him she’s sorry she wasn’t the boy he wanted. The gun is cold against her cheek, heavy on her shoulder as she wraps her finger around the trigger, braces herself, and pulls. The release is painful against her body, and the smell of burnt gunpowder is overpowering. She squints to see if she hit her target, which is a useless endeavor. It’s too dark and she’s too drunk.

“I hate you,” she says, not sure if it’s to the animals or her father or both. And then she’s crying. Big, fat tears that race down her face and fall into his shirt. “I’m sorry,” is what she says next. Over and over again. “I’m sorry you didn’t get what you wanted. I’m sorry I didn’t protect the animals. I’m sorry I didn’t take you down and hold your heads and stroke your fur and ask him not to hurt you.”

She looks from wall to wall, making quick, swift movements as her head snaps from one side to the next. She remembers her fantasy from earlier: Her ex’s head, mounted on this wall, and smirks. And then she is spinning in the chair, fast. In rare occasions, she would be allowed down here when she was little, and her father would hold her in his lap and twirl her around and she would laugh, so thankful for the time, for the attention. She thinks about the state fair he took her to. The kewpie doll he won her. The way he lifted her into the air and tossed her up onto his shoulders, parading her around. If only there could have been more of those times. If only he had been more kind than cruel. If only he had loved her harder, deeper. She spins until the den becomes a dizzying blur of her daddy and his objects and the animals.

Everything congeals and fuses into unrecognizable shapes. When she’s had enough, she tries standing, desperate to steady herself, and waits for the animals to come into focus. And then she knows. Her smile from yesterday, in the airport bathroom, returns.

She finds Smitty on the internet. He connects her to Sal, who introduces her to Arnie. It takes an additional five calls to find someone who lives nearby and agrees to help her out.

Darlene and Loretta and a handful of relatives and friends enter the Macon’s Rose Hill cemetery, which was founded in 1840 and stretches 65 acres. Darlene’s father can be buried here since his great-great granddaddy fought in the Civil War. Her mother’s body was so damaged from the car accident, she was cremated. He father wanted no part of it. “That ain’t the wife I married. That’s sand and crushed-up bone in a box. I don’t want to look at her all day and know she isn’t here,” he had told everyone at the funeral home.

Rick had wanted their mother’s ashes for the very same reason. “It’s all we have left of her,” he countered, taking the box from the mortician, wrapping his arms around it protectively, frightenedly, as if he expected their father to snatch it away from him. “You look at dead animals you shot all day long in your secluded cave and you can’t respect your wife enough to keep her next to you?”

“For a fag, you sure as shit have a mouth on you, boy.”

“Must be hereditary,” Rick said, and walked out of the funeral home.

Though Darlene was just as close with their mother as Rick, she let Rick have the remains. He would take care of her, keep her in a beautiful urn or sterling silver box with velvet cushioning, talk to her every day. Her mother deserved that, if not more.

Her parents had met at a bowling alley, where her mother worked as the person who swapped out the shoes. Her father liked to bowl with his school buddies. The way her mother told the story, he’d come over to her once, offered up his street shoes, and when she’d handed him the bowling shoes, he’d placed his hands over hers. He liked that hers were soft.

That she smelled like Ivory soap. That she was a good girl who hadn’t been with other boys.

She had been pregnant with Rick when they married — or rather, they married when she found out she was pregnant, which was what good Southerners in trouble did. Her father always said they got a gay son as punishment for not waiting to have sex until after they were married. Jesus’s way of sentencing him.

Darlene’s mother was pretty in a plain way. Sweet as pie, her father would say around his third drink. That term became one of the markers they would learn. By his sixth or seventh,  “sweet” was forgotten and resentment appeared, dark and ugly.

Her mother was a nervous but loving woman who tried to protect her children. Stayed for their sake, then didn’t leave for hers. As a child, Darlene would wish over and over that the three of them would get into their car and go. She imagined their note would simply read: “Gone Hunting.”

As far as Darlene knows, there are no plots here for either her or Rick.

‘Rest in peace,’ she says under her breath as the first clump falls into the hole. ‘Who were you?’ she asks when her second scoop drops on top of the first.

The cemetery is bright in the sun and, even in its dilapidated state, is beautiful. Darlene passes by a white, wingless angel, a little stone girl in a long dress wearing ribbons in her hair, and an owl. Outdoor works of art enclosed in an open-air museum. Such different trophies from the ones that hang on her father’s wall.

After the priest says a few words, the shoveling process starts. Although this is normally a job for the men, Darlene steps forward, her hand outstretched. The expression on her face shows her seriousness, because Ed Brog hands her the metal shovel and steps aside.

“Your daddy would appreciate this,” he says.

She grips the round handle, feels the heaviness of the instrument compounded with the dirt, both of which are empowering. The feeling magnifies with each scoop of soil she takes. “Rest in peace,” she says under her breath as the first clump falls into the hole. “Who were you?” she asks when her second scoop drops on top of the first.

Rather than follow everyone back to the house, Darlene goes to meet Max Gish, who lives only an hour away.

Max is a short, pale man with an army-like haircut and hands like leather gloves.

They are so soft and velvety that she almost asks what his skin care regimen is. Her own hands are dry and callused from the constant handling of the cards and chips — even though she swaddles them with cream, wears those gloves treated with lavender Vaseline for 15 minutes a night under a heating lamp according to the directions on the box. But her nails are well polished and shapely, a rule of the casino.

Max’s studio is clean and pristine, like his work, like his hands, and she wishes he would reach for hers, tell her everything will be okay. That she’s a good person with good intentions and a need to hold onto the past so that she can have a future with a man she hardly knew. She wants his hands on hers, wants to know what buttery velvet feels like. She strains to remember the last time someone held her and told her everything would be okay. She searches through a handful of instances that mostly involve her mother or brother, even a few with her ex-husband, but finally rests on her father. She recalls him carrying her during a thunderstorm, when the roads were too flooded to drive, and her fever hadn’t gone down in two days, for almost a mile until he got to the hospital.

She doesn’t want the details, she just wants her father back, and so she hands Max the photos he asked her to bring.

“This is a nice one,” he says, when he gets to the one of her and her father fishing on the small boat he built. “You can tell he was enjoying this activity. Look at how he’s bending down next to you. That close proximity shows me that he loves you. That he cares about teaching you something, and there was pride.” Max pauses and looks from the photo to her. “I have a masters in psychology and forensics with a concentration in understanding and decoding body language.”

Darlene nods while leaning in closer to see what Max is talking about. To see if her father really did love her.

He motions to her to take a seat on the couch, then he sits next to her, close enough so she can feel the warmth of his body, the smell of his minty breath. “I believe in the preserving and preservation of the soul. Sometimes it’s too hard to say good-bye. Or we’re not ready. Clearly, you’ve unfinished business with your father. Shoot, who doesn’t. My Daddy and I had some lengthy blowouts. He died a couple of years ago.”

Darlene scans the room.

“Oh, he’s not here,” Max says, as if reading her mind. “I said my part to him years ago, and again before he died. I’m okay with where he is now. Which is the Glendale cemetery. Visit him every other Sunday.”

It’s after 11 p.m. when she, Max, and his assistant, Buck, return to the cemetery.

Everyone who came back to her father’s house this afternoon to pay their respects has gone. Now the shovel is back in her grasp, her body hunched over it as she removes the well-packed soil she placed onto her father hours earlier. Her heart is in her throat; the ringing in her ears fights the sound of crickets. She almost listens for her father’s voice. “What the hell are you doing, girl? I’m dead. Are you out of your mind? I always knew you’d be the first to snap. Just like your Aunt Emma. Walked around naked in the winter…”

“I’m sorry, Daddy,” she whispers.

Like pirates searching for buried treasure, the three dig him up. The headlights from Max’s truck give plenty of illumination. Max and Buck lower themselves carefully into the hole. The top of the chestnut colored coffin seems to glow and she watches the men heave the lid open. In this light, her father looks no different to her than he did yesterday. She slides the stretcher down to them and watches as they ease him up and out, careful to hold his head and shoulders upright as they place him on the taut cloth. Darlene gets on her knees, fists gripping her father’s jacket, and helps pull him up. When Max is no longer needed below, he gets on the other side of her and the two raise the lifeless body higher onto the stretcher, making sure not to bend or contort him. They work as efficiently as soldiers, as gently as if her father was a newborn.

‘That close proximity shows me that he loves you. That he cares about teaching you something, and there was pride.’

When she runs her hand over his face, he’s cold and stiff and sad. His hair is still soft and he smells of dirt and chemicals. She says a little prayer before the specially-coated plastic tarp rests over him, and the three place him carefully into the back part of Max’s truck, which is padded with mattresses. She steps aside and watches them strap him down, making sure he’s secure.

The sky is still black when Max comes out in scrubs, looking like a doctor telling concerned parents that everything went fine, that their son survived the operation. The $25,000 it will cost to preserve her father is 37 percent of what she makes in a year. Thanks to her divorce, much of her savings went to legal fees, and she lost the additional income her ex contributed. She’s not sure her father left her anything or if he even had a will.

She’s betting a lot on Max and his craftsmanship. If she were smarter, a better gambler like her father, or if she had learned anything from the eight years at Caesars, it’s that the house always wins. But she’s not sure which side she represents or if she’s doing the right thing.

“You’re lucky. The embalmer did a fantastic job.” Max’s eyes are illuminated, his smile is honest, and he reeks of compassion rather than formaldehyde or death, as Darlene thought he might. “I’ll be doing a plastination drying process, which works perfectly, since he’d already been drained of his natural fluids. Then I’ll inject him with a polymer solution, which hardens the body and erases odors. But that’s it. The rest will be all him. His skin, his bones. He won’t have fluid or fat or anything. His organs will be have been removed as well, and we’ll add hemp wool, polyurethane foam, and wire to keep the body from sinking into itself.”

Darlene is trying to take in what Max is saying, but can’t.

“I’ll be working on him all night long, so really, you’re best off going home, sleeping, and coming back around noon. We’ll both be ready for you then.”

James Jordan is in the wheelchair, dressed in his favorite shirt and sweater, pair of dark denim jeans, and the dirty buck shoes he wore when he hunted. One hand rests on the arm of the wheelchair; another is placed in his lap over a navy blue blanket. From a distance, it looks like he’s been waiting for her all day, and it takes several seconds to realize he’s not alive. That this isn’t a joke or a dream.

To her surprise, he looks realistic up close, too. Stiff, certainly, but there were illnesses that Darlene found on the internet last night, like Stiff Person Syndrome, a rare neurologic disorder of unknown etiology characterized by progressive rigidity. Or Hyperekplexia, which can make one appear frozen or mannequin-like. She knows she’ll need to build a believable medical case if she’s going to get him home. She’s most taken by his face, which is slightly glossy, ruddy, and almost perfectly constructed. His expression is calm, his eyes are soft, his lips a perfect pinkish-red. The angry façade she was accustomed to seeing is gone, leaving her with a sweeter, kinder version of her father. In fact, at closer look, it appears as if he’s smiling ever so slightly.

Tears rush from her eyes, smearing her makeup and leaving track marks on her cheeks. She doesn’t bother to hide them, even though her father never liked emotion, and she lets Max’s hesitant but buttery smooth hand linger at her face as he tries to wipe them away.

“Everyone reacts like this,” he says, his voice matching his demeanor.

“He’s just so real looking.”

“I know. Everyone says that, too.” No longer in his scrubs, Max looks angelic in his crisp white work shirt and tan slacks.

“Can I touch him?”

“Of course.”

She rests a light hand on the hand touching the wheelchair, feels the tight, solidness of her father. He’s colder than room temperature and looks as realistic as expensive fake fruit that always fools people. She moves her hand to his cheek and for the first time, strokes it as lovingly as possible, half expecting him to flinch or to reach up and grab her hand. Push it away. But he remains still. His face unaffected.

         “He’s been cared for greatly in the process. Human skin stretches ten times more than animals, so you have to be extremely careful. His eyes are real. So are his teeth.” Max is beaming. “I posed him as what seemed natural from the photos, and then hardened him in this position. I also brought in someone to do his make-up, you know, to add color to his face, do some small facial reconstruction.”

Pushing her father through the Atlanta airport is like traveling with the President. Two full IV bags, which she found among his medical treatments at home, are attached to his chair, hang down, and disappear into his arm. Black sunglasses cover his eyes, and she can easily tell people he’s sleeping. Max has also concocted a doctor’s note stating his patient is not to be moved, claiming this condition has rendered him paralyzed from the neck down, which literally helps them slide through security.

Darlene loves the special treatment and the privilege of being first on the plane.

She rolls her father into the spot where a seat has been removed for people in wheelchairs. Max has sprayed him with cologne to help hide the formaldehyde smell; now, her father smells surprisingly of Old Spice. She takes a seat next to him in First Class, clips herself in, and waits to be found out. But people seem more concerned with storing their bags in a prime spot in the overhead compartment, or trying to find their seats, or making one last call before turning off their cells.

During takeoff, she reaches for his hand. Though stiff, and slightly glossy, it isn’t as cold as she expected. Thankfully, the kind stewardess from her flight on Thursday isn’t on this one. What would she possibly say to her?

‘He’s sleeping right now, if you don’t mind.’

An hour in, the steward sets a lunch tray down in front of Darlene and holds another one for her father, but Darlene stops her.

“He’s sleeping right now, if you don’t mind.”

 “Oh, well, I could leave it so he has it when he wakes up,” she says.

“He’s on a very strict diet,” Darlene tells her.

The stewardess straightens up. “Of course. Is there anything else you might need? Special assistance when we land?”

“If we could exit first, that would be incredibly helpful. I know wheelchair-bound people are supposed to be the last ones off, but medics are waiting for him because he’s late in getting his treatment.”

“Oh, absolutely,” she says. Slight alarm has crept into her voice. “I’ll make sure that happens.”

Before they land, the stewardess makes good on her promise. “Hello, everyone. We’re just moments away from Newark,” she says into the speaker system. “We ask you to please remain seated after we land while an ill passenger is escorted off. Then we will exit as normal. Thank you.”

To Darlene’s surprise, people do as they’ve been told. She and her father are first off the plane, first to get onto the free shuttle that brings guests to the casino, which of course has a wheelchair lift. Tomorrow she’ll return to the airport and retrieve her car. Right now, with her father at her side, she feels closer to him than she ever has before.

The deck of cards, stack of chips, and unlit cigar are exactly where Darlene left them, right in front of her father on her small dining room table. The sun is just starting to move away from the window, but its presence is still strongly visible.

“I got a $100 tip today, Daddy,” she tells him, as she takes off her coat and opens the fridge. She removes two perfectly cold beers and opens both. She sets one down in front of him, then bends forward and kisses his glossy check. “It wasn’t a bad day, but good God it was long.”

She sits in the wicker chair across from him, clicks her beer to his, and takes a well-deserved swallow. The special pink-frosted light bulbs she’s bought are the kindest to his face and hide the imperfections, while adding a soft glow to his complexion. “Okay, same as last night or new rules?”

She waits for a moment in the silence and then starts to deal. “No cheatin’ from you this time,” she says, smiling. Rick had her mother; it seemed only fair she got the other parent. He was her prize. She had won him fair and square.

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Alix Strauss is a four-time published author and a journalist based in New York.


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