Things get so muddled. Remembering is like pulling cold taffy from my reluctant brain. In my recollection, the day comes out stiff and sticky, only the light feels true. It was late morning on the marble stairs in front of my grandmother’s front door, the sun not quite at its apex, but high enough to fill the tunneled entrance to the house in Noe Valley with bright clarity.
I stood on the threshold, my father standing about six steps down, looking up at me. I remember the warmth of the house behind me, the interior mix of muted yellows and greens withholding from the cool, crystal morning. He had a suitcase in his hand and tears on his cheeks. I remember thinking that he looked good out of bed, stronger than I imagined his long, thin form , covered with white chenille like a caul. I hadn’t seen him standing in the light for a long time.
“Where are you going?” I asked and felt the churn of corn flakes and toast.
“Where?” I’d learned, before I recognized the lesson, and worried about the drinking, the dank, sour places he used to go, before it made him weak and sick and he couldn’t get out of bed anymore.
“Your grandmother says I have to get a job before I can come back.”
“You can do that.” I heard the doubt in my voice, pulled the skirt of my homemade play dress across my thighs, tried to reassure him. “You can work with horses, like when I was little.” He looked up the stairs at me, locked his flat brown eyes on mine, shook his head.
“Well, you can drive a truck or fish. Remember when . . .”
“Colleen, this is the city. No horses or fish in San Francisco.” He rested the suitcase on his knee like a lap desk, leaned forward, balanced on his elbows. “I will stay with friends, get a job. I’ll come back for you and we can get a horse . . . and rabbits. You can feed them. I’ll come and get you and then we’ll go back to the country, back to Marin.”
“But, you live here. With me and Mom and Gram.” I cried, but it was a tight, wadded expression of what I didn’t know.
“Not anymore. Think about what you want to name the horse.”
He lifted the suitcase from his knee, set it on the step, came to me and kissed my forehead, hugged me until my shoulder blades touched. He turned and clutched the handle of the suitcase, his curly black hair disappearing at the bend in the tunnel. I ran to the window to look for him, to watch him go, but the sidewalk down the hill was bright gray and blank in late morning, a breeze bobbed the wiry red blooms of the bottlebrush tree that grew by the curb.
I waited then, for years. I went down the stairs, always expecting the pile of black curls to emerge from the tunnel’s bend, to color the blank stucco, to move up the cold marble to meet me. One day, when I was twelve, they told me. He broke his neck in Tallahassee. At the window, looking down, the light withered in the afternoon like dry cheese, the vivid red bottlebrush wept in the wind, its filiments flying away.