The house smelled just like him.
Momma and I stopped by unannounced. He wasn't there, but it smelled like he'd run out for a minute, probably to pick up a box of King Edward cigars or whatever it was he'd sometimes have in that brown paper bag. The house looked different than the last time I'd been there, even on the outside. The dusty red brick butted up against the new, dusty red brick of the addition.
It almost matched but not quite.
The two brick columns stretching from the roof to the shallow front porch's floor stood stately, not strictly out of utility, like they once seemed to do. The single carport that was once home to that cream-colored, four-door 1983 Oldsmobile 88 with a dark blue ragtop had grown. A shiny pearl Cadillac Escalade had replaced it, and there was space for another car to the left. The house—the picture of it, at least—was neater and looked more like a home.
It was hot. Very hot.
At some point during the day, July 5, to be exact, the car's thermometer reached 105 degrees Fahrenheit. It was probably every bit of that inside the house since the air conditioner had gone out. Despite the spiffed-up inside, with its added-on bedroom and walk-in closet, the man-decorated foyer and the extended kitchen that the decorator in me gave a "B-," the house was still familiar. Back in the day, it might have been just as hot as it was this day, even if the air was working. My dad didn't much like artificial air. Even in winter, when you actually needed warmth, it'd be uncomfortably hot inside the small house at the end of that long, rugged driveway.
Momma and I were driving home from Sunday evening at dinner at my aunt's house, and I suddenly had an impulse to drive down the road that's named for my father's family, Collier Rd. She drove slowly to navigate the large and small depressions in the road that's poorly paved with grey rocks that looked like they belonged at the bottom of a shabby fish bowl.
As we got closer to the ingress that lead to my father and his sister's houses, Momma said, "We're not going up in there."
That was fine with me.
I craned my neck over my left shoulder, looking out of the back window of Momma’s SUV, watching his house grow smaller. I was curious but would have never admitted it. Momma continued driving slowly. There was more dry, dusty pine-tree forest between each house on either side the more we drove along the road that led to— I still don't know where that road leads. So we turned around in the middle of the used-to-be rock road. When we approached the houses again, she said timidly, "Want to go up there?"
"Yeah," I said, nodding my head in the affirmative.
We parked the car behind that large, freshly-waxed SUV and approached the house.
Neither of us wanted to be the first to approach the door and ring the bell, both thinking it'd be best if the other did the honors.
"You go first," Momma said.
"No. You should go,” I reasoned. “He'll know your face before he knows mine."
Cousin, the man of the house, fixed all of that, as he walked outside to greet us before we even made it to the door.
"I wish y'all would've come another day," Cousin said.
In hindsight, that was the first punch to the gut. He didn't mean it in the "I don't want you here" way my daddy might've very well intended it, depending on the day and who was there.
Cousin’s skin was dark brown, almost black, like burned toast. "My air just went out on me,” he said, as sweat rolled off his bald head. “It’s hot in here.”
"It's OK," was all I could muster. I wasn't sure if I should be talking. And I was almost certain I shouldn't have been there.
Momma quickly followed up with, "We won't be here that long anyway. We just wanted to stop by."
"Come on in," Cousin invited, apologizing again for how hot it was.
The house was completely different at first. He gave us the tour. Voices commented about the men in uniforms playing some sport—I'll never remember which—on the large, flat-screen television that sat atop a makeshift stand of plywood and cinderblocks.
Hmph, I thought. Wait. Isn't that the fireplace? That doesn't go there.
The three of us chatted. We talked weather, extreme makeover his-home edition. I asked a question or two about the branches of the family tree. There really wasn't a lot to say. We were strangers and he, my cousin whom I don't even remember ever meeting, was now living in my father's house that he bought from my brother and me years ago. It was the first time I'd been in the house since before we sold it to him.
We walked past the small, round kitchen table that looked unnervingly like the one that used to be there and stepped outside onto the concrete he'd laid for a patio. Momma complimented him on the storage house he'd built. It was made of pine he'd treated and stained. I didn't walk up to it, but from a distance, it looked like something he bought at Lowe's. A riding mower sat under a covering, and a late-'90s-modeled midnight green pickup truck was parked in front of the unit. He said it was “for hauling things.”
"How many acres is this?" It was a question I'd never been curious enough ask.
He didn't know exactly, and I'd never noticed just how much land was beyond the back door. Land rolled down to an abyss and then grew upwards. It had been cleared off a good bit. All that land belonged to Cousin, too. What was I thinking? I remember wanting to get rid of anything that belonged to Daddy. I had no use for it.
"You know there's a pond back there?" he prodded, interrupting the conversation in my head.
My mother said she didn't remember, but I did. Vaguely.
"Remember when I was little and we used to come to fish fries?” I said, looking at my mother, pointing toward the forest. “Seems like I remember there being a pond somewhere."
"It's dried up now,” Cousin interrupted again. “I've been thinking about digging it back up and filling it in."
No one in the trio spoke for a second that seemed to last minutes.
"Well, thank you for letting us intrude on you,” I said, reaching for the back door to walk back inside the house and head to the car. “We just wanted to stop by.”
I stepped into the kitchen, and to the left in a shallow pan sitting atop the stove was a fat, slightly charred red rose sausage link.
Lots of things were different, but really nothing was. We'd interrupted Cousin’s dinner, the same dinner my father probably would have had if he were still alive.
My stomach started churning a bit and beads of sweat percolated on my skin—my forehead, forearms, the small of my back, the inside of my thighs. I was hot, but I was so cold and dizzy. When I took a deep breath, my nostrils filled with a familiar potpourri of peppery scrambled eggs cooked in bacon fat, Sulfur 8 grease, cigars, the stench of liquor escaping pores, burning wood that hissed and popped, Faultless starch and steam from an iron.
I saw him, my daddy, sitting there on a kitchen chair, slight curve at his shoulders. His coconut shell-brown, calloused hands wrapped around a wide-tooth comb he used to tap a steady rhythm on the crease of his crisp, nearly ossified jeans. A few tightly coiled strands of hair from his modest, perfectly-shaped afro rested on his pure white V-neck T-shirt, and his dry, bare feet stealthily held down the floor underneath him.
I never knew which was more embarrassing—the snoring or the sight of him—with him sitting there like that. When friends slept over, I would ban them from the front of the house once he came home.
If he came home.
"What's that noise?" my best friend would inevitably ask during a sleepover.
"I don't hear anything," I'd lie, looking at her quizzically then stand up to before walking over to the 13-inch television to turn up the volume.
My daddy was a man of few words. When his lips weren't pursed, as they often were, his manicured mustache served as a canopy for his mouth. But when he inconveniently sat in the middle of the kitchen floor in one of those solid wooden chairs at the table, after a night out, his head would hang backwards like an open Pez dispenser.
"I want some more of that pizza," best friend would say after a while.
"I'll go get it.” My response was quick: “Do you want something to drink, too?"
I couldn't risk her seeing my daddy smelling my daddy, hearing my daddy and figuring out what that sound was before I turned the volume on the TV up to hearing impaired. I tiptoed past him, glaring at the sight, resenting that I had to play maid for a friend, unaware then that resentment dropped a weight at the pit of my stomach.
In second grade, my class staged “The Alphabet Play.” I distinctly remember my daddy agreeing to attend. It was going to be perfect. I had the solo my elementary school nemesis wanted. Everyone was going to hear me sing, talk about how cute and wonderful I was in front of him. I knew that the cast on my right arm would gain me extra sympathy points, and my daddy would be there to see it all go down. I was “Q,” a severely underappreciated letter in our alphabet.
“I need ‘Uuuuu’ ...” I belted out. The rest of the alphabets agreed in song, “’Q’ needs ‘U.’”
Repeat, “I need ‘Uuuuu’ ...” The chorus confirmed, “Nothing else will do.”
My daddy never showed up. He didn’t see me, and I pretended not to care.
I only have a handful of memories beyond that, and most of them, too, are sour. Holidays, for example, are supposed to be glad memories—good tidings of great joy. And they are for me, minus him. I eventually stopped buying him Christmas gifts because I didn’t know what to buy. Birthdays grew hairier because I didn’t want to spend my money on him. So I didn’t.
Father’s Day was tougher. I never found a Hallmark card with the greeting, “I sure wish things were different between us, dad. I know you’re broken, but now you’re breaking me. I foresee years of therapy to get over this one, but I'll be fine. Do better. Happy Father’s Day!”
Then again, I never looked. Cards are expensive.
I eventually gave up the hope that things would be different. The weight of the wait was too much, and he still never saw me.
It had been eight years and a month since my father died, and standing in the kitchen of his old house, I sadly understood nothing had changed.
"Oh, my God.” My insides screamed at me. “Get me out!"
Cousin wanted to show how he'd done little to the other parts of the house. One bedroom now had workout equipment in it. "I use this for my dressing room," he said. The other two rooms looked exactly the same: bed, dresser, mirror, the end.
The bedspread that stretched across the queen-sized bed in the "dressing room" looked just like the one that was there the last time my brother and I went in the house a few months after our father died. That day, my brother cried, and I felt nothing.
At some point, I couldn't hear the words exchanged between my mother and the cousin. I had to concentrate on making sure I kept my breathing even and that I didn't hurl.
Cousin was so warm, so nice. He invited us to come back anytime, and the teenage girl in me, I suppose, wants to think he meant it. It was strange to get an invitation from the man of that house who actually wanted me to come back.
When we pulled off from the house back onto Collier Rd., I told Momma, as my head swirled, "I have to vomit."
She pulled over on the side of the road. I swung the door open before the car stopped, and my mother, afraid I was going to fall out, grabbed the back of my dress. I braced myself between the seat and the opened door with my head hanging out of the SUV. There was only retching and a little bile that came up.
I sat up slowly, sweating profusely and turned the air conditioner up as high as the knobs in the car would allow.
"I don't know what just happened, Momma," I said, when I was finally able to speak.
I blotted my cheeks with the napkin my mother offered me. Momma didn't say anything, as she watched me, trying to figure out what was happening.
It was the first time my body ever felt comfortable in my father's house. That is, until he showed up.
Natalie A. Collier is a southern girl who has seen words destroy and heal. She lives in Jackson, Miss., her beloved community, where she now works at a nationally known non-profit organization with teenagers and young adults since leaving a career in journalism. Find more of her random thoughts on her dusty MsInklination blog.