By Teague von Bohlen
She and her sister once saw their father dancing, with their mother out in the scruff between the house and the barn, dimly lit by the forty-watt on the back porch. Their father was surprisingly gentle for a man with such rough hands, dried like late autumn apples. His head rested on hers; they swayed to music that wasn’t there. Or maybe it was just the wind and the cicadas.
The girls should have been in bed. They were eight and four. But the day had been long, the family having come for late summer supper and now having retreated back to their well-lit homes, some far away, some one block over, everyone still laughing, with bellies full and sweat baked into their shirts. It was that sort of night when the rules bend of their own accord when bedtimes become negligible and fathers dance. And girls watch because this was new.
The younger girl thought it was funny, her father dancing with her mother. She thought she’d seen all he had in him: the occasional fumbling bedtime story, the do-you-want-this-ear-any-longer game he’d play when she’d walk by his recliner in the living room, the little smile he’d shoot her when she’d say something she shouldn’t, right before he’d make her apologize. He worked, more than anything, in his feed cap and his denim, and his hair was always the same color of gray. She thought he had no surprises left in his pockets.
The older girl was watching him move with her mother. The way they did it in concert, like they’d practiced this, like this was a movie and there was choreography involved, a slow two-step with paper shoe soles taped to the floor so they’d know where to place their feet. His broad belly against her waist, her chest touching his, the way she looked up at him. That smile she wore, a face her mother didn’t often put on, even for Daddy, but she was right then, dancing in the gravel to nothing at all. The older girl imagined dancing with someone like that. Exactly like that.
The moment lasted his girls the rest of their lives. The sky was always dark, the dishes always stacked in the kitchen, the tables mostly stowed in the barn, all but the one that always sat out back of the house. Their mother was always smiling, their father always surprising. He’d built that table and repainted it every spring with whatever he had on hand. Under the green from the shutters was the white from the garage, beneath that a thick bloody red like the barn, which covered the blue of the house siding. On an on, borrowed hue, tunneling kaleidoscopes of use. His girls never got up from that table; they sat there as they grew, as they left that house, as they married and bought their own tables, as every promise made to them was eventually broken. They were always those girls. Always picking at the paint. Flaking it all away in fragments. Believing there was something more. Wondering what color might come next.