Who He Had Been
by Ariel Berry
He had a mouth like a frog’s, and when he was happy it blew wet, smacky kisses. When he was sad it croaked softly as he crouched tugging his hair. It had been a long time since his frog mouth had been overshadowed by his giant hands, angry eyes, and bulky shoulders. He had faded with the scars he had made, as her child grew within her. Her too early pregnancy had sent him into his final rage—not MY daughter!—but now all his energy was seeping from him.
Before, he had seemed so tall. She had felt like an ant in his presence, being crushed beneath all that weight.
Now he sat before the TV, watching CNN, burbling softly about presidents and mangos and how many pennies make a dollar. When she stooped to hand him his medicine he was confused.
“Is this Italy? Are we there yet?”
“Not yet, Dad. Maybe tomorrow,” she told him. He nodded, content. The next day, she knew, he would forget. He always forgot. It had just been birthdays, at first. Hers. Sixth. Then he forgot how many drinks he had, forgot what happened when he drank those drinks. He forgot to leave the house. When he forgot how to tie his shoes and turn off the oven she moved back in with him, bringing Clara with her.
He was too young for this, they all said. How extraordinary.
She always smiled and said, “My father has never been an ordinary man.” That generally got a laugh, the loudest from those who knew—had known—him well.
He wanted to go to Italy. She had promised him they would go, back before she began changing diapers again and mixing his food in a blender. He forgot to bathe or what year it was, was genuinely startled when Clara came into the room—Who is this? Some kind of hobo child? No, your granddaughter—but he never forgot Italy for long.
She took him and Clara to a lake. Near the water men with big noses were laughing. She could see bubbles rising from murky fish and turtles’ pristine noses peeking above the surface. A large blue X had been spray painted on the grass. She wondered what it meant.
Her father inched toward the water, scooting down a small peninsula that jutted into the algae crusted wet. She watched him more closely than she watched Clara. Only one of them could swim. He knelt down in the grass—she resisted the urge to tell him to stand up, his pants would get dirty—and dipped his hands into the water, held them like claws. He smiled, the first time in weeks, splashed small droplets onto her shoes. She knew, then, that this was where she would empty the urn, when the time came. It was the opposite of who he had been.
“Is this Italy?” he asked, beaming.
“Yes,” she said, as Clara chased a duck. “We’re finally there.”