Mom and I remained in that windowless room with its bad art and cheap furniture. As Taxol seeped into her blood stream, I etched each drop into my memory. One of them would lead the fight against the cancer now holding her body hostage.
At her first treatment, I had thought, How easy this is. Mom just sits here and waits until the bag empties so that she can go home. But half an hour in, goose bumps had swarmed across her arms. She began to shiver, then shake. Before I could even call, Synthia had rushed in the room with an extra blanket, socks, and a sweater from the lost-and-found.
“It was like brain freeze,” Mom told me later. “But with my entire body.”
It was a paralyzing cold, she said. Achy and warm at the edges.
I didn’t like seeing her tortured. I didn’t like seeing her cry. I was helpless, though, and couldn’t prevent either. So, I sat next to her, alert, in my chair, waiting for her to get better, waiting to witness the exact moment of her recovery.
I reached for Mom’s purse in search of a stick of gum. She chewed several sticks of Double-Mint to combat nausea and dry mouth. The pack of gum hid among lipsticks, medicine vials, and makeup. An old, crumpled photograph—the kind with the white frame and time-stamp—hid in a smaller pocket.
I gasped. Muttered, “Wow...” A five-year old girl was sitting criss-cross-applesauce on the hood of a black Thunderbird. She wore green and orange plaid pants and an orange T-shirt. Her two ponytails had been tied with orange cotton yarn. A grinning black man stood next to her. His conk shone in the sunshine.
My heart pounded so fast and hard, I grasped the chair’s arm to steady myself from fainting. “Wow...” I glanced over at Mom. She was still asleep. A good thing.
This picture was twenty-five years old. I had never seen it, even though the images were familiar: my father, his T-Bird, and me.
On the Sunday that picture had been taken, Mom had been watching Wild, Wild West in the living room. She never missed an episode: Robert Conrad made her swoon. I had settled next to her with a Ramona book and read as she muttered, “Get him, Jim.”
Ten minutes into the show, I placed my head to her lap and stared at the pictures on the walls. A black and white of my naked mother holding a naked, newborn me. A picture of me (three years old, maybe) in a bathing suit, reclining on a lawn chair. A magnolia is tucked behind my left ear. A coloring book sits on my lap. Another picture of Mom, Dad, and me. We wore white dress-up clothes as we stood on the beach.
These pictures proved that we—the Paul Smith family—had existed. Can’t capture myth on film, no matter what I think at times. No matter what Mom thinks now.
I had fallen asleep.
The smell of English Leather made my nose twitch and I opened my eyes. Dad sat next to Mom on the couch. His hands were lost in her hair. He nibbled at her earlobe. Mom held the side of his face with her eyes closed. She was smiling—a different smile from the one she gave me.
I narrowed my eyes and stared at Dad, unsure if he was real or if he was a dream. I didn’t speak in fear of waking myself up, even after he separated from Mom and said, “Hey, Shorty.”
“Daddy?” I sat up and rubbed my cheek. “Are you back?”
“Yep.” He had grabbed me, hugged me tight. Beneath his cologne, he smelled of Ivory soap. He had taken a shower before returning home. The peppermint Certs he sucked couldn’t hide the Scotch on his breath. Never did. He always smelled of Scotch and soap on the days he returned from photo assignments.
He pinched my arm. “How you doin’, Shorty?”
“Fine.” I stared at his shoes. I could see my face in the black patent leather. He hadn’t had those shoes before. “Did you bring me something?”
“Yep.” He nodded to the coffee table.
A wooden Russian doll sat on top of T.V. Guide.
“If you open her up,” he said, “you’ll find another doll. And then, if you open that doll, there’s another doll.”
I looked at him, my mouth open in awe. “Dy-no-mite!” I snatched the doll from its place and pulled it apart. Sure enough, another doll hid there. “Dy-no-mite!” My father always brought back cool souvenirs from each place he visited.
Dad smiled. His teeth were large and white, like slats on a fence. “I got another surprise.” He stood and his leather jacket creaked. His beginner’s beer belly bulged against his slacks’ waistband. He ate and drank well on these trips around the globe, those trips without Mom and me. “Come on Neve. Shorty.”
Mom pulled me from his arms. “Where are we going?”
He said, “Outside. And bring the camera.”
“Paul.” She looked at him with suspicion, as though she had never slept with him or borne him a child. “Where’s your camera? Where’s your equipment?”
“Why you bein’ like this?” He frowned. “Stop being silly and come on, now. See what I got us.”
I said, “Yeah. Stop being a worrywart. Let’s go see.”
Mom sighed. She shuffled across the living room to the kitchen drawer that housed extension cords, a broken hammer, and a Kodak camera. “We’re out of flashbulbs.” She tossed a blue flashcube stained with black powder into the wastebasket.
Dad called from the porch, “You don’t need no flash. It’s still light out.”
Mom slipped her feet into a pair of clogs. I reached under the couch and found my princess shoes, the ones with fake rubies and emeralds, and a barely-there heel, then followed my parents outside.
A black 1967 Thunderbird was parked in our driveway. Its belly hung so low to the ground, you couldn’t roll a marble under it. The car glistened like onyx even in the late moments of full sunlight.
Mom gasped, then muttered, “Jinkies.”
“Ain’t it bad?” Dad rushed over and ran his hand across the car’s top. “This son-of-a-gun is solid, ain’t it? Come on. Get closer.”
I clomped over and peered inside the car. Its leather seats and dashboard were as black and shiny as the outside. Like the interior had been greased down with Crisco. A green pine tree cutout hung from the rearview mirror.
Mom held her stomach, as though she had been sucker-punched. “How... where... where did you get the money?”
“Relax, Neve. Shoot. It’s what I work for.” Dad smiled at me. His face reminded me of the dark man’s face on the Cream of Wheat box. “Like it, Cat?”
“It’s dy-no-mite!” I said, avoiding Mom’s eyes. Yes, I betrayed her, but it was a bad-azz car.
Dad reached beneath my arms and picked me up. He swung me high into the air, then sat me on the hood. He pulled out a packet of Bottle Caps from his coat pocket and offered it to me. “Sweets for my sweets.” He smiled, so I smiled.
That day, the clear sky was the color of Windex. The Santa Anas had blown the smog and the cumulus clouds to the Pacific Ocean and all the way to China. I tore open the bag of candy and ate a cap in my favorite flavor: pink. The sugar slowly melted in my mouth, between the spaces of my teeth, until it became syrup. It was a perfect day.
Dad turned to his wife. “Take a picture of me and my two babies.”
And Mom obeyed, though not pleased.
Dad took the camera and snapped a few more pictures of the car, fascinated and still reeling from the fact that this steely mass of American badazzness was his, all his. And with nothing to hold (except a grudge), Mom stuck her hands in her jean pockets.
I stuck the picture back in Mom’s purse. Why she hadn’t shared it with me, I don’t know. It wasn’t like I didn’t know about my father. Maybe she thought I knew enough, and so we didn’t have to talk about him ever again.