Kathryn Kulpa is a fiction writer whose stories have been published in Artful Dodge, Hayden's Ferry Review, Monkeybicycle, Northville Review, Thumbnail and other journals. She received the Mid-List Press First Series Award for her short fiction collection Pleasant Drugs and has also been honored by the Florida Review Editor's Award, the Louise E. Reynolds Memorial Fiction Award, a supplementary award in the Bridport Prize competition, and several nominations for the Pushcart Prize. Kathryn is a writing teacher, librarian, and editor of Newport Review, an online journal. In her spare time, she fosters kittens.
So my therapist decided I had anger issues around my father, and when I told her I barely remembered him she asked me to make a list, things I remembered about him and things I remembered about any other “father substitutes” in my life. I asked did I have to do it and my therapist said no, she couldn't force me, but she thought it would be helpful. So I sat down and made a list, not because I thought it would be helpful but because I knew she didn't believe I would. I've got a reputation. Uncooperative. A “reality blocker.” I think reality should be blocked and blocked hard, but I don't want anyone thinking they know what I'm going to do. It's bad enough that half the people here grew up with me in their living rooms. They owned me for half an hour every Wednesday night. That doesn't mean they know me.
1. James. My actual father. I was six-going-on-seven when he left, just about to start first grade. Seven is not that young. I should remember more about him than I do, but he was away a lot even before he left for good. What do I know about him? He had brown hair and sideburns and wore navy blue plaid bathing trunks. He smoked cigarettes from a red and white box, smoked so many that his first and middle fingers had a hard, brownish-yellow stain where the cigarettes rested. He had a lighter my brother Brian loved, silver with a flip-top, and he let Brian play with it, even though he was only four. “Watch it,” my dad would say, “you'll burn your eyebrows off.” He liked oranges and would only drink orange juice if it was squeezed while he watched, and the maid had a plastic juice squeezer, orange like the fruit, that she would use to make his special juice. The rest of us drank Tropicana.
There was a song about him, after he left. A song about the scandal. It played on the radio for a few weeks and then faded. It was the 1970s, a time of scandals and of fleeting fame. I don't remember the song now, only that it rhymed Bahamas with pajamas and subpoena with be seein' ya! If it had been a better song, kids would have used it to make my first year in school hell, but after that someone wrote a song about Muhammad Ali, and someone else wrote a song about the shark from Jaws, and I was safe.
Sometimes I thought my father hadn't really gone away for good. I imagined him building a secret lair on a private island, getting it ready for the day when he would send for Brian and me. The call could come at any time, I thought, and I kept a suitcase under my bed, ready for a midnight getaway, until one day I opened it and tried on the clothes I'd packed and realized they were all too small.
I still hate orange juice. Can't drink it at all, even with vodka.
2. Harry Janovec. He was my father's boss, until he wasn't. I remembered hearing our parents talk about him, like Santa Claus, as the source of all good and promised things. He came to our house once, only once, after the scandal. He sat on the couch my mother had, an hour earlier, frantically covered in Scotch tape, to be pulled off moments before the great man arrived. She'd locked the dog in Brian's room. She'd even tried to hire the maid back for the day, after letting her go, but the maid sent her regrets. The maid had found a new family to work for, one whose father wasn't sought for extradition.
Our father's ex-boss sat on the newly Scotch-taped couch, surrounded on either side by silent men in dark suits. I noticed the yellow dog hair our mother's tape had missed clinging to their pants legs. My mother served tea. Brian and I were introduced, in our best clothes, and then sent away to play. It was an adult matter.
I saw Harry Janovec later in the sunroom, looking at something outside the French doors. His eyes were intent. He had a gray beard and did look a little like a craggy-faced Santa Claus. He motioned me over silently, and we both watched a long, brown animal slink from the pond with a fat goldfish in its mouth and disappear under the jacaranda bush. I had been watching this animal for months, finding a strange satisfaction in its sly, twilight navigation of our back yard. I named it Rikki-Tikki-Tavi, after a mongoose in The Jungle Books, and though I tried to feel sorry for the fish, my heart was with their hunter.
“He's good,” said Harry. He was from another country: I hadn't known that. His accent made it goodt.
“Don't tell my mom.” I'd made the mistake of telling my mother about a family of raccoons in the pool house last year. Brian and I watched them all the time, gave them names, made up stories about them. The white exterminator's truck ended that. Harry Janovec nodded, as if he understood.
“It will be our secret.”
“Are you still mad at my father?” I asked him, not that I were supposed to ask him anything, or talk to him at all, but he didn't seem to mind.
“Not really,” he said. “He didn't steal any of my money.”
3. Gerry. Jon. Moustache Guy. Yoga Guy. Porno Guy. Brad.
Men who dated my mother. Some of them moved in, never for very long. There were others, men who didn't stay around long enough to have a name or even a Guy designation. Sometimes I would run into them in hallways, coming out of the bathroom. I'd pretend to be sleepwalking, shut my eyes, bump into walls. It was awkward. Should I count them as stepfathers?
Then there was Alyce, from my mother's lesbian moment. Should I count her?
4. “Allan Cook.” Not his real name. My television “father.”
He was the one who chose me for the show, even though the only experience I had was that one cereal commercial in fourth grade. I understood, even then, that someone in our family was going to have to earn a living, and it wasn't going to be my mom. I started sharing a lunch table with the drama kids, reading Variety and singing show tunes. I laugh when the tabloids talk about my “stage mother.” She didn't even come to the audition; I got a friend's mom to drive us there. I felt hopeless next to the other kids with their thick portfolios and fake teeth, but Allan Cook liked me. He said I didn't look like a 'child actor,' thank God.
Also, we had the same chin. I always thought that had something to do with me getting the part.
He was nice to us, that first year. He took me and Brian to Sea World. It only got weird when I grew breasts, or maybe it was when I started getting more fan mail than he did. When the network ads were rebuilt around my giant, pigtailed face, with TV Dad and the minor siblings and funny neighbor orbiting that face like lesser moons around a gaudy, ringed planet.
He'd grown up poor, somewhere in Colorado. He taught me to play poker and drink shots. When the network objected to my curves he gave me the name of his doctor and the doctor gave me what I needed to stay little and cute and eleven forever, or at least for two more seasons. By that time the house would be paid off. By that time, maybe, my mom would stop being so scared. I slept less and less, but I dreamed of the life I was earning and would have soon, dreamed it lying awake at night, wearing the tight sports bra I wore even to bed. Sometimes emptiness growled and bit my stomach but Allan's pills made that easy to ignore. I was a girl with a goal.
I had a plan for my 16th birthday. I would chop my hair short, change my name, finish school in Europe, spend long days with charcoals and a sketchbook in a cafè in some Greek village where nobody owned a television, where wine flowed like water and olive oil flowed like wine, and Diet Coke—diet anything—was never on the menu.
5. Brian. Not the obvious choice. He was my baby brother, and I was the one that protected him. Except there was a time he tried to protect me, and if my therapist ever asks me to make another list, a list called Stupid Actions I Will Regret Until the Day I Die, telling Brian about my TV dad on the night of the Teen Rave Awards will make the top of that list.
The studio made me wear a pink prom dress. Taffeta. Brian said I looked like a Mexican lampshade. I threw myself down on his bed, staring at the ceiling he'd painted black. “Maybe I can eat a greasy taco and drip cheese all over it,” I said, although I didn't eat tacos, or cheese.
Brian passed me a joint. “We could set it on fire,” he said. “You could tell them it was an accident. You were freebasing. Who knew it could go so tragically wrong?”
We had two hours before the studio car would come to pick me up. The dress pulled under the arms. The neckline itched. My scalp felt too tight. Nothing about me seemed to fit. “They're making me go with Allan,” I told him. “Like my 'dad' is my escort. How incredibly lame is that?”
“Not to mention incestuous,” Brian said, and I mumbled something about how at least they got that right, and then saw his face and wished so hard I hadn't. Nothing happened, I told him. He just stared at me sometimes. He just made pervy comments.
“But I'm totally dealing with it,” I said.
When “Allan Cook” got home that night his house was trashed. At first I thought of a crime scene. There was a body drawn on the kitchen floor in what we eventually realized was ketchup. If Brian hadn't already been caught on the security cameras it would still have been obvious who did it. Spray-painted across the living room's four walls, in huge red letters:
I saw it, of course, because I'd come home with Allan. I stopped him from calling the police, even before I saw the writing. I knew. He'd been walking in front of me, like he was trying to shield me from something, but when he saw what Brian wrote he turned around and anything funny or protective or remotely fatherly I'd ever thought I'd seen in him was gone.
“You told him.”
No, I said. Brian had gotten this idea.
“Your brother,” he said, “is mentally ill.” He spoke with a strange emphasis. “He needs professional help.” The cameras were still running, I realized. He didn't look at me, but he gripped my wrist hard enough that I had to wear long sleeves the next day.
I agreed to everything, just to get his hand off my arm. “He doesn't understand,” I said. Inside I wanted to cheer. Inside I wanted to run home and wrap Brian in my arms.
When I rewrite the scene in my head that's how it happens. Then I can erase everything ugly that came after. Allan turning off the security cameras. “Don't think this wouldn't ruin you too,” he said. “You'd end up in girls-behind-bars movies, if that.” My mother, taking the path of least personal responsibility as usual. Brian turning his face away, curling deeper into himself. Who was there left for him to trust?
He was my brother, the one who hid under the bed with me the time our mother decided to break every glass in the house, but I was the one who put the radio on and made him sing along until we couldn't hear anything but our own voices. The phone was under the bed with us, just in case. The long bedskirt filtered out the light and let us believe we were somewhere else, in a black-and-white TV world where singing the perfect song could make everything come out right. I grabbed an old, one-legged G.I. Joe and held it in front of me like a microphone to make Brian laugh, and he did laugh, then. He believed that I could keep us safe.
He was the shy one, the boy who stayed in his room and read comics. He was my baby brother, the one I tried to be brave for, but he was braver than I could ever be. I like to imagine him the way he must have been on the night of the awards show, fierce, a dragonslayer covered in spray paint. He'd been a father to me that night.