a short story by Leah Kuenzi
IN ONE VERSION, it goes like this: the loud pop of a car door breaks the still quiet of early Sunday morning. Out come the brother and the sister, and they plod up the father’s driveway toward the house. The sister tugs at the lacy collar of her dress, burning her neck like the fire ants that squeeze between her toes as they tear through the yard, full speed, all day long. Tag and catch and King of Rock Castle, games that don’t have names or rules and live only in each of their heads, shared DNA. The brother and the sister don’t wear shoes often, so calluses thick as hooves protect their feet against the gravel and brambles. Today, though, as every other Sunday, they wear shoes—the ones with the black bows and the stubby, round heels; the ones with the swath of brown polish and ragged laces that aren’t tied quite right. “Sloppy,” their father will say, and the brother will kneel down to try again. The mother backs the car out of the driveway to head home, waving all giant and swoopy. Her smile is wide but stretched thin; mostly teeth and not much else. Her day of solitude arrives once more. The sister wonders sometimes about what the mother looks like alone in their house, what she does, how she moves.
Outside, everything is in its usual order: the basketball hoop with the broken chain, the raised bed garden next to the tool shed with the fuzzy carrot tops that get a little taller every day. Next to the carrots, the overgrown rosemary bush from which the aunt cuts stalks for roast chicken. The brother grabs the basketball from the ground, dribbles twice, sinks a shot, and takes a victory lap around the yard. The sister cries that he was too close, that it wasn’t even a hard shot to make, that she could do that too. She grabs the ball as it rolls past her: aims, fires, misses. The chain rattles and breaks free from one more corner of the ring. HAHAHAHAHA, the brother’s laughter comes in one loud burst. They agree it is time to go inside before they get in trouble.
The alarm chirps its hollow song as they enter. Laundry tumbles in the dryer, the father’s cereal bowl rinsed and drying in the rack. The shriveled and browning banana peel is tossed on the edge of the sink. The aunt had insisted on helping a few times per week, to push the vacuum and wipe the counters and iron the father’s Sunday best dress shirts—little things to her, big things to him. The house is too big for just one person, and the aunt doesn’t like this either, would prefer a more manageable space. The upstairs is untouched since the day the father moved in. Sometimes the father talks of setting up bedrooms for the brother and the sister, but really, what’s the point for one night a week? Sleeping bags are more practical. In the forgotten half of the house, there are three empty rooms, a closet that holds a stack of flattened moving boxes and a folded wheelchair, not the fun kind with the motor and the speed control dial that the father sometimes turns up to full in the aisles of the grocery store to get a laugh. It always works, the brother and the sister laughing themselves into a heap on the floor. Other people staring disapprovingly while the father drives his race car wheelchair. The one in the upstairs closet is just the regular kind with the handles and the slouchy vinyl back.
The brother and sister cross the living room and knock on the father’s bedroom door. He sits on the edge of the bed, struggling with his suit coat, ties long ago jettisoned in favor of an open collar. The room is sunlight and aftershave and the weatherman’s cheery voice. “Would you help me with this thing?” the father asks the brother, warm greeting forfeited in the interest of expedience. The father is not generally a warm greeting kind of person, but some mornings he surprises them with closeness, pulls them to his chest, asks, “How are my favorite daughter and favorite son?” Now, there are only ten minutes left to get into the car and still be on time for the early service. The brother and father wiggle the fabric back and forth, the liner catching on the bulge of the father’s left hand, the brother finally able to guide it into place. Sunday is the father’s grumpiest day. On Sunday he is sharp lines and pressed corners, exhausted from the extra effort, from the keeping up with these small formalities of his old life. He does not bother with this during the rest of the week. On Mondays and Tuesdays and Wednesdays and Thursdays and Fridays and Saturdays it is morning physical therapy and an afternoon bob in the pool and bedtime during the day with golf on in the background. Choir practice once a week. The aunt visits and cooks dinner on Thursday, again on Sunday.
In the van the father hums the tune under his breath, a last minute practice. The German words puncture the quiet in sharp, staccato blasts. Herr! Der Du bist der Gott, der Himmel und Erde und das Meer gemacht hat. The lull of the car and the father’s smooth baritone rendition of Mendelssohn’s St. Paul oratorio wrap the sister in a blanket and she falls asleep. She wakes in the church parking lot, neck bent down, chin on chest, as if in prayer.
The brother and the sister go downstairs to the Sunday school room while the father disappears to the sanctuary. Upstairs, the choir director blows a C flat on the pitch pipe and the choir takes up their starting notes for rehearsal. Mrs. Gray instructs all the children to lie down on the floor and dims the lights. She lights a candle on the table and begins the day’s lesson on meditation.
“I want everyone to be still still still and to take three big, deep breaths. Look at your bellies while you breathe: when you breathe in, it should get big big big, and when you breathe out, small small small,” Mrs. Gray instructs them.
The children giggle as they compete for who can get puffiest, who can make the most noise with their inhale.
“Meditation means making your mind as quiet as it can be. Just think about your breath as you go in in in, out out out.” A hush slowly descends on the children as they focus in on Mrs. Gray’s words. “Sometimes, when people meditate, they may feel very close to God. They might feel like he is in the room with them, they may hear his voice.”
From upstairs, the music drifts into the sister’s thoughts: Allein Gott in der Höh’sei Her Und dank für seine Gnade: Darum, daß nun und nimmermehr Uns rühren kann kein Schade. She isn’t sure whether to quiet the voices and focus on her breathing or to welcome them in, draw them closer to her.
A thud, like the basketball hitting the backboard. Shrieks and cries. The organ comes to a stop. Downstairs, the children bolt up from the floor in unison.
In Susan’s office, Adalyn rested her head on the corner of an overstuffed chair. Susan’s voice sounded distant, as if being broadcast through a radio from a faraway planet.
“This type of confusion is common after a traumatic event. Even though it’s been a very long time, it may still be possible to remember for yourself. It will take time.” Each week, Susan gave the same spiel when Adalyn made no progress.
“There’s an objectivity in your descriptions. You talk about your memories as if they exist in some far away place,” Susan said.
“Whenever I see the details of a particular morning, I imagine myself sitting high up. Like me and my brother and my dad are down on a stage and I’m sitting in the rafters observing,” Adalyn explained.
“Why do you think that is?” Susan asks. The leading questions again. The open-ended, analyze-yourself, dig-deep, think-harder kind of questions.
“A new perspective. Maybe I’ll see something different from the birds-eye-view,” Adalyn said.
“If you stay at a distance, if you prevent yourself from being in the center, does it make you feel safer?” Susan asked.
Adalyn swallowed hard and nodded, words lodged somewhere between her brain and her stomach and her mouth.
Susan and Adalyn had been at it for a few months: once a week, for fifty minutes, Adalyn told Susan different versions of the things she remembered. The thing she didn’t remember lurked in the murky outer reaches of her mind. The day after her eighteenth birthday, Adalyn had sat on a bench outside her dorm room with a pink sticky note in her hand, the names and numbers of five therapists scrawled across it. She’d done the research months earlier, searching online databases for therapists who specialized in trauma therapy, writing down the names of the ones with the most reassuring smiles. And the ones that took her insurance. But she hadn’t been able to bring herself to make the calls. That changed after her eighteenth birthday party. Her friends had taken her to a bar downtown, the one that was known for not carding undergrads. The bartender sent over lemon drop shots, then there was a round of rum and Diet Coke. The group moved to the back patio to play a game of “Never Have I Ever” (“It’ll be a great way to get to know each other better!” her suitemate Laura declared) and a pitcher of beer followed.
It had gone normally enough until a round of fireball shots about thirty minutes into the game, when Adalyn shakily maneuvered herself on top of the table and screamed, “NEVER HAVE I EVER KNOWN HOW THE FUCK MY OWN FATHER DIED! AND I WAS THERE WHEN IT HAPPENED! ISN’T THAT WEIRD? WHO WATCHES THEIR OWN FATHER DIE BUT THEN CAN’T REMEMBER WHAT HAPPENED?!”
Her friends paid the tab and ushered Adalyn into the alley. Laura held her hair while she retched the sour liquor concoction next to a potted plant, and steadied her arm during the sobering walk back to campus.
The next morning, Adalyn made the calls and found Susan.
Three months later and still she searched. “Start again,” Susan said. “Pick a new beginning and see where it leads you this time. See what you recognize there.”
Maybe the beginning is not so abrupt: no edges, the day taking shape in the wispy hue of waking up. Maybe the sister opens her eyes just as the birds begin their morning assault on the peace and quiet of nighttime. She watches the bedroom wall through half-mast eyes as the shadow puppet of the slatted blinds slowly appears along with the rising sun. The brother and the sister lie next to one another on little sleeping bag pallets on the floor of the father’s bedroom. She holds up a bunny rabbit and hops along the edge of the window sill. The brother makes a barking dog that chases the bunny down the length of the wall. The weather man flashes onto the TV screen for a moment and then disappears. A beat later, Tiger Woods is lining up a putt, slow and deliberate. The father is sitting up in bed swallowing the first pills of the day; the sound of his gulping is the only trace of him. The sister can taste the sour smell of her breath. She is not eager to rise and greet the bustle of Sunday morning. She considers the ritual bowl of Corn Flakes she’ll have to eat, and they make her think of gagging. She pictures herself in the semi-circle of Sunday school and can see straight through Mrs. Gray’s chipper moods and sing-song façade, and grows preemptively wary of the dank chill of the basement room. The brother now pretends to fall back to sleep, eyes closed but lids fluttering, prolonging the inevitable, just as the sister is trying to do.
She climbs out slowly from the heap of blankets and pillows and walks to the father’s bedside.
“Dad, are we going to church this morning?” she asks at the decibel of a whisper-scream, in the typical way of children.
“What do you think?” he asks back.
“I think we are,” the sister responds, betraying more disappointment in her voice than she meant to.
“Well, guess again,” the father says, and the sister’s face rises in anticipation, too excited to even consider the possibilities. She gathers her thoughts and shoots for the stars.
“Can we have donuts and hot chocolate? And then can we go swimming afterward?” the sister asks.
“Donuts AND hot chocolate? I bet you’ll swim really fast from all that sugar!” the father jokes with her. “Why don’t you tell your brother the good news, and I’ll go take a shower,” he says.
He clicks the remote for the stereo, and the brassy twang of Handel’s Amen swells into the room.
The sister goes to collect her favorite t-shirt from the laundry room and pauses in the kitchen to get a glass of orange juice.
The brother’s shriek from the other room is a pitch louder than the chanting of the chorus and hits the sister like a wrong note.
Another possibility: the sister is standing on the rubbery ledge of the pool. The father stands on the springy end of the diving board; she is afraid he might fall, but his muscles tense into the shape of an arrow—his hands pointed to form the head, his torso and legs the shaft. An attendant walks outside to refill the pile of towels and smiles at the sister.
“Great day for a diving lesson! Your dad’s the master. He’ll have you going head first in no time,” the man says to the sister.
She doesn’t want to be rude and ignore him, but she finds it hard to look away as she is consumed with watching the father’s ritual. Responding to a split-second cue she didn’t hear, the father plunges into the water in a single motion. Even with his crumpled arm, he is nimble, fierce: water bubbles out from his nose and moves away from his feet in rhythmic waves.
He pops back up on the other end of the pool, water streaming down his head and back in little beads of excitement and joy, like he’s just soaked in all he can and there’s no more room inside him.
“Woo-eee!” he shouts. “A little cold today, folks!”
These days, he is not usually this way: big and loud and talking to one in particular but just proclaiming things for the world to hear. The sister can’t remember the last time he spoke on impulse rather than necessity.
“That was a nice one! Good form!” the attendant calls to the father.
“Well, stick around for a minute more and I’ll turn the little one into a spitting image of her father,” he says back.
And instantly she feels her stomach tied to an anchor, sinking under the weight of letting her father down. Usually she would protest with “Can I just go sit in the hot tub today?” or “Dad, I just want to watch you dive,” but she is determined not to be the reason for his scorn, his disappointment. Not today. She will not quell his sudden vigor. So she approaches the board, and the father calls out the instructions, and she bends her knees a little and they tremble enough to make the board wobble under her weight, but she straightens up at his command and leans in half towards the pool and shoots her arms out above her head and wills her knees to be brave. She thinks how she must look standing there: like exactly half of him, which half she isn’t sure. She starts to tip forward; at a certain point, she reasons, the choice will be out of her hands and she will be too far over the ledge for fear to freeze her legs. Her arms pierce the water with a muted whooshing sound. She has done it. She pauses near the floor of the pool and swims around for a moment, taking in her victory. She can hear the gurgling voices above the surface; the jovial tones of the father praising his daughter to anyone who will listen. Still underwater, the daughter flips around to her back and opens her eyes for a moment. The chlorine stings as she takes in the blurry edges of her surroundings. The sun is an undulating ball of heat in the center of her view that warms a patch on her stomach. The waving lines of the water dance before her eyes. A muted cracking sound reverberates through the water, so jarring it feels like an actual tap on her skin, and a dark figure falls toward her. She flaps her arms and legs and pushes herself towards the surface.
Susan’s voice was the usual perpetual evenness of understanding, and for a moment Adalyn wished to provoke her anger. The method of soothing voices and gentle encouragement had been well-tried before. Adalyn thought back to the drunken night when she screamed her secret to the world, how her anger rose in a sharp wave that threatened to knock her down off the table. Maybe that was a missing part of the equation. Scream at me, slap me, shake my shoulders, Adalyn thought. Tell me. Right now. What the fuck. Comes next. Maybe the anger would push her further into what she could not see, what she refused to see.
“What happens if you try to see beyond the moment where the memory always seems to stop?” Susan asked.
“If I go any further, the memory becomes not my own anymore. It’s my aunt delivering a eulogy and my brother at the visitation holding a sad triangle of sandwich that he moves around his plate but doesn’t eat. But I’m not there in any of it. The eyes that witness those things aren’t my own. They aren’t connected to my consciousness. It’s like I never made it out of the bathroom, out of the Sunday school room. My arm is stuck in midair as I’m reaching for the door handle and take in my brother’s scream,” Adalyn says.
“If you can’t see what happens next, where does your mind go the moment the memory ends?” Susan pushes her further along.
“When I was a kid, we had a swing set in our backyard and sometimes I’d screw up the courage to try and go all the way around in one giant loop. My legs would get pumping really fast, and the metal chain was pushing so hard into my leg I thought it was going to break the skin. Right at the top of my arc, when I was certain I’d made it high enough to go all the way up and around, I’d close my eyes as tight as I could, and if the sun was bright enough, I’d sometimes see these squiggly, dancing lines on a milky orange background. Then I’d realize that I was coming back down to earth, and my heart would drop in relief. When I try to see past the end of the memory, it’s like I’m squeezing my eyes at the top of the swing set all over again. It’s the wavy lines dancing around inside my eyelids and the sheer relief of knowing I’m coming back down after all.”
Susan nods, because there’s not much else she can do.
It is Sunday morning: the pop of the car door, lacy dress with the fire ant collar, shoes tied not quite right. The mother’s smile thick as honey. The car getting smaller as it rolls down the driveway. The brother takes the shot. Swoosh. Not fair. You cheated, scolds the sister. From the corner of her eye as she walks toward the house, the sister thinks she sees that the rosemary bush is turned to ash, just a pile of charred brown stalks. She starts to walk towards the garden but the brother reminds her of lateness and the vague threat of disappointment and so she puts the thought out of her head. Inside, the cereal bowl in the drying rack and the clothes spinning and the boring wheel chair alone in the upstairs closet.
But the room isn’t sunlight, and the weatherman is nowhere to be found. The scene is quiet, empty. Adalyn waits to see what will happen, but nothing moves. Someone has missed an entrance. Forgotten a line. It needs a protagonist. Someone to take note.
From up above in the rafters, Adalyn brings herself to a standing position and takes the long spiral staircase down to the main level of the stage. She walks down into the father’s bedroom, stands in the middle, and looks around.
From the bathroom there is a noise. In a bedtime story the father once read to the sister, there is a rabbit that gets caught in a bear trap. The father makes a grumbling whimper that is part human understanding of pain and part animal disbelief. In its misery, the rabbit comes to life on the page. All of its suffering in one terrible flash of realization before the sister’s eyes. The noise from the bathroom is like that. As the sister reaches for the handle, she considers that maybe she better not. It could have gone either way. But she pushes the handle. The father’s body is a question mark on the tile floor, the dot on the bottom a tidy pool of red.
Leah Kuenzi is currently pursuing an MFA in creative nonfiction at Georgia College in Milledgeville, GA. She previously spent several years in nonprofit fundraising before committing full-time to the writing life. Her other time is taken up with vegetarian cooking, complaining-daily-about-but-ultimately-choosing-to-continue running, starting (but rarely finishing) home improvement projects, watching old seasons of The Amazing Race on Amazon Prime, and listening to every podcast that is recommended to her.