My father’s body seemed to begin with his hands. They were the square-knuckled foundation from which the rest of him flowed, sloping and louche as the 70s incarnate. I could watch his hands for hours. I often had to, as my father performed his failure. In front of me at age two, me at age four, the incantatory power of those hands: to lift a joint or pipe or pill to lips sprouting from the blackest beard half-Hungarian blood could muster, to set the object down again with ease into an air transformed and smoking, to fold those hands over his knees, domesticated, orderly as laundry, clean and stacked.
My grandfather has the same hands, the ones I’m looking at now. I’ve driven four hours to get to the east side of the state. My grandfather likes vaguely Greek diners, the ones that serve gyro with the omelets and keep moussaka on the back of the menu. He’s not Greek, of course, but he feels at home with the waitstaff’s habit of hands that clap and wave like his when he talks. Porcelain dog figurines decorate the restaurant. Mutts and purebreeds with frozen smiles and paws aloft in prance or march, set with care along the dusty bar counter and the chipped sink in the women’s bathroom. I arrived to a half carafe of coffee and empty plates sticky with syrup. I am hungry, but unsure how long this whole thing is supposed to take.
“You have your father’s nose,” he says.
I rub it out of habit. It’s cold in the diner. “You’ve got his eyebrows,” I say.
He fills my cup, then his. The steam curls into strange shapes above his palms as he holds them up, shrugging. He says, “Technically, he had mine.”
His letter was distillation of pure grandfather, call it element of G, a letter trussed up in his one good dark jacket, solemn wording, a latticework of cursive. Mountain of grandfather solid enough for me to make out the spiderweb-hover of dead son suspended, my father’s face, half his, half mine. It was a truly fucking dumb death. Over the phone I was told first, about five of those cherry-sour alcoholic energy drinks that come in tall cans, the ones that teenagers stuff under their coats at the gas station. Second, a paradoxical handful of sleeping pills. Element of father, then: a gentle fading. He once stayed up for three days straight and I sobbed, please daddy please please please let me sleep. I wonder what it’s like to see your own face contorted with bald need, exposed to whitest bone. The folder from the lawyer’s office is stamped with a shiny silver monogram, pinned under my grandfather’s elbow (please please). The money from the lifetime my father worked at General Motors is in that folder, pension, life insurance etc., money of loyalty and inheritance, the simple value of years no matter the substance. My grandfather taps his fingers on the table. He says, “What do you think you’ll do with it?” I sit up, spine straight, hope he will find me up to the task. A true daughter of the Kovacz clan, call it element of K, volatile and bright, skin liable to burst into ticker tape at slightest provocation. I would like to buy a bed so I can stop sleeping in others. Grandpa K keeps me at arm’s length like a fish plucked sputtering from the diseased shores of Lake Huron but he says, “It’s all yours,” and I realize I’ve never heard those words before.
He slides the folder across the table, looking at me with indulgence like any grandfather looks at his granddaughter when she opens a gift. I flip it open. The papers make little sense to me. I try to keep my face still.
My mother said it could be something like twenty thousand if my father had been smart. We were on the phone the day after we learned my father died. “But don’t get your hopes up,” she said. Children hollered and shrieked in the background. She opened the daycare when I was in high school with cash stockpiled from the divorce. After years of leaving me with an addict who left out bottles of pills like candy, she now spends her days obsessively reading up on childcare lawsuits. She buys child-safety locks, paraben-free toys, rubber guards to soften sharp corners. I don’t blame her. Children can get into anything.
Grandpa K rattles his cup on its saucer. “Don’t have much to say, do you.” The waitress stops by with the check. He smiles like he knows her, like he’d enjoy giving her the money, like she’d appreciate it the right way. Hug, kiss, element of granddaughter etched lightly into fading memory, and I’m out of here. I adopt the blank-eyed smile of gratitude I’ve learned from years of enduring condescending social workers and nosey drug store pharmacists. I wait for his benevolence. I wait for him to pick up the check.
“I think it’d be nice if you paid,” he says, gesturing imperceptibly to the folder I now clutch against my body. “Please.”
Startled, I look at him. He won’t meet my eyes, father’s eyes, the dark we both have. I reach for my wallet. I can’t help it.
“That’s my girl,” he says, voice gruff, wanting his words to be true.
We need to go to the bank to make the money mine, but for some reason we stop by his house first. We drive in separate cars. I follow close behind. The boxy blue single-story and patchy lawn conjure up something about love in the summertime, little girls and bare feet. Sprinklers. Element of sieve, transparency, a memory you hold up to the light to determine its honesty. I stay in the car while he heads inside.
My motor rumbles beneath my feet, humming of a quick getaway. I haven’t been this way in years. I don’t remember much about his house except the smell of leather, more horsehide than shoe polish, and of the strange foods of bachelorhood, onion and spice, my grandmother having died long before I was born. Sometimes in my memory his house rambles dirty and cluttered, a hoarder’s dream. Other times, I think of it swept clean from corner to corner, spare, monastic, always ready to start over, no unnecessary attachment to job, family, country. It occurs to me that all my father’s money likely went to me, not a scrap to him, because that’s the way that money flows. Into the future, to the young. I can’t argue with that. As the last remaining daughter of the Kovacz clan, I am ready to dodge bullets, skip town, accept final meaningful gift from father who gave me nothing. Yet my grandfather looks so small as he locks the door behind him. His jacket is worn almost to white at the elbows. His house needs new paint. It occurs to me that he lives alone.
Grandpa K has an envelope tucked under his arm. He mouths to me, Present. Later. I pull out of the driveway and wait for him to lead.
My grandfather’s tailpipe bounces and coughs in front of me. The embossed folder lies on the seat next to me and every so often shifts, slides forward, slips askew. My grandfather’s hand sticks out of the window and waves, gestures to this house or that. This one has pale yellow siding, this one a broken mailbox on the tree lawn, this one some pitbull mutt slobbering and rushing at a chain link fence. I don’t know what I’m supposed to notice about each, what he thinks I see. Memories of years zero through five have been shaken out of my head like pennies from a pig and instead I populate these houses with half-true names, scornful stories from my mother when she’s had too many. Aunt Ruth with her five miscarriages and false sense of God. Uncle Dan, his dog-fighting ring and the bottles. Scattered cousins I’m sure I had at one point, all with my same dark brows, my father’s and grandfather’s brows, at various stages of marriage and custody battles, working at the gas station or the Batteries Plus or the fun pub down the block. Maybe a great-grandmother, my father’s mother’s mother, one of those neighborhood mamas with a hip sway to send all the kids running. We turn left, then right, then three blocks straight.
Gas station, dollar store, taco joint stuck in the 90s. Buildings alternate like a handful of tossed dice, lots for sale, foreclosure, foreclosure. No homey diners here. My mother plucked me from olive-skinned heritage of addictive chromosomes long ago; I used to hate her for it, hated the blonde and the bland she dunked me into on the west side. The Great Lakes lap at our ankles and the tide threatens us, seduces us escape, release, dreams of California. Michigan should feel more unified, or at least compact, yet the hemispheres of my brain connect only by pot-holed interstate. On the west side I might be shabby but I am clean. The dishes are washed and stacked before bed every night. I am almost done with school. On the east side I drive too fast, change lanes with abandon. My atoms shake loose and I am perpetually fifteen, cigarettes, shitty tattoos, a runaway who remains a father’s daughter and the disgrace of every grandfather. I could fill the whole city with versions of myself if I had stayed. I could create a forcefield of watchful ethnic families that used to exist in neighborhoods like this, where the kids were sent outside to play all day, where they fucked up and bruised their knees but were still watched over, fed, protected by the mothers and the fathers who were mothers and fathers to everybody. Everybody knew what went on in other people’s homes.
At least, I’ve been told some families were like that.
My grandfather stops and I almost rear end him. We pull up in front of a squat brick house. There’s a bail bonds office on one side and a hair salon on the other, women’s faces pressed and faded against the windows. I tuck the folder under my arm and get out. The air smells like snow and gasoline, dirty and clean at the same time. He asks me if it looks familiar.
Of course, it does.
He hands me the keys from the mailer envelope he brought from the car. He says that he bears me no hard feelings that my father only left him a house with a flooded basement, blown-out fuses, a handful of squatters. But, he says, my Aunt Ruth is pissed as hell and has words for me next time I see her. “That’s the way children are,” he says. “They leave you with nothing, and you just have to get along.” I’ve found that when men want something that badly, they always badmouth it in public. The keys he holds out like a shiny bauble to me, only child of this family not my family. He must imagine me as poor, starving, dry and bereft as dead oak leaves. He wants me to believe that clean escape is never possible here— that Michigan will drown you in cold shallows before it lets you swim. His smoker’s teeth peek through thin lips like broken pieces of plate, like cruelty. I want to believe that he knows what he is doing to me. If he does, I could press myself to his side, help him up the stairs. I could take this as an act of love.
“If you want it,” he says, “it’s all yours.”
He walks up the sidewalk. In the February air he is pale as the house’s broken brick, as the worn patches on his jacket. He is pale as my hand that reaches out to him, that says, please, please. It’ll be my hand, not his, the first to jangle the keys, turn the knob, push open the door. My mouth, not his, the first to breathe the musty air of this house that feels ancient, this house that belongs to us both.
An element of surprise: I follow.
Cima Rahmankhah currently lives and works in Los Angeles. Cima received her MFA from Art Center College of Design, Pasadena, in 2012. Recent solo exhibitions include “I Can’t Park Myself” at MiM Gallery, Los Angeles, 2016, and “Echoes of Many” at Agency, Los Angeles, 2015. Her work has been included in numerous group exhibitions worldwide such as the Johannesburg Art Gallery, Johannesburg; the Fundación Canal de Isabel II, Madrid; the Museum of Contemporary Art, Puerto Rico; and the Museo Universitario del Chopo, Mexico. Cima’s work has been published in New York Art Magazine and in New American Paintings.
Laura Citino is a fiction writer and essayist from southeastern Michigan. In 2013 she received her MFA in fiction from Eastern Washington University. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in numerous journals in print and online, including Sou’wester, cream city review, Pembroke, Blue Earth Review, Compose, and others. She currently teaches in a program for academically talented youth and serves as Managing Editor for Sundog Lit. She lives in Kalamazoo, MI.