At dusk, fireworks pop in the street. I hear my brother’s old cap-guns, the wind in the leaves around a graveyard where my father didn’t want to be buried, a cigarette, crackling & snapping as he took a long drag. Even as a child I knew the malady of living in a place he refused.
Then: my mother, swearing she’s overweight, wearing nylon stockings like second skin under her clothes. She eyes herself in dressing room mirrors, pushing & prodding the skin around her thighs. I learn forgiveness can be weighed & measured. My father’s body, hurled from a bridge, has a heft all its own.
We drive from Atlanta to Wesley Chapel & I allow my sons their devices. I want them to be quiet enough that my husband & I can talk like we used to. 30 years ago, I played car baseball & counted punch buggies as my father smoked & my mother read magazines. I picture my kids telling this story later, how they quiet in the quiet I’ve left.
Once, my father’s hands weren’t grey & swollen. I wasn’t nine years old. He’s wasn’t breathing water instead of silver smoke from an unfiltered cigarette. I wasn’t wondering about the scar that ran lengthwise away from his left hand. The white dots where a needle pulled through skin, left silken threads to dissolve. He wasn’t just another man who held me, saying I’m sorry.
Pray for him, my mother says, but I won’t say his name when I pray. Nor the name of a ruler who might grow us somewhere safe. Prayer, now, is about the ritual of moving my lips. Of words that pull like water at my ribs, as I ask myself, what is a father, if not another word for suffering?
Chelsea Dingman is an MFA candidate at the University of South Florida. Her first book, Thaw, won the National Poetry Series and is forthcoming from the University of Georgia Press (2017). In 2016, she also won The Southeast Review’s Gearhart Poetry Prize and was a finalist for the Auburn Witness Prize, Arcadia’s Dead Bison Editor’s Prize, Phoebe’s Greg Grummer Poetry Award, and Crab Orchard Review’s Student Awards. Other forthcoming work can be found in Washington Square, American Literary Review, and Third Coast, among others. Visit her website: chelseadingman.com.