I used to cross the street when nobody was home and read the notes, imagining they were for me. I would scan the words he wouldn’t dare speak aloud, the apologies rippling in the wind like crisp, white sheets splattered with mud.
Of course, I never knew if they were really for me or for the family he claimed, the kids he tucked in at night or the wife who I saw washing the dishes after dinner through her kitchen window. I wanted to be in that house, wanted to be the one whose head he’d pat when he came home from work, or took to Sunday mass. Instead, I’d sit next to mom in church every week, eyes fixed on the altar as the priest boomed homilies of faith and charity, his messages ping ponging from the rafters above to my ears and back again.
When I tried to turn around to catch a glimpse of the man who was my father, mom would grip my knee over my pink dress. “Amelia,” she would hiss, her nails digging into my skin. “Sit still.”
Mom knew I knew but pretended she didn’t. I overheard her one night when I was ten, talking on the phone with her sister in Tennessee, the one she called only on Wednesday nights when she thought I was asleep. Usually I was, but that night I’d heard her sobbing through my bedroom wall and tiptoed down the hall to investigate. I sat with my back against her door, hugging my knees to my chest, listening as she lamented her mistake. The next morning I woke in mom’s bed, her front cuddled against my back, arm secured around my middle, protecting me from her nightmare.
That was the first year Dad crucified the Santa suit. By the time I was thirteen, I’d gotten used to seeing it dressed up there on the lawn for every season, every holiday. Bold and intrusive, like a Candy Gram nobody wanted.
The notes started when the woman who was not my mother, got sick. I’d heard about it in school. How the queen of the PTA had walked into a meeting with her shaved head wrapped in a paisley-print scarf, shocking the soccer moms into silence. Their kids stopped playing outside after that, but I would often see Dad sitting on his front porch swing, beer resting on one knee, staring off into space.
Sometimes he would stand, place his bottle on the railing and walk across the yard to the Santa suit, head bent, and shoulders hunched under the weight, or so I liked to imagine, of his choice. He’d retrieve an index card from his pocket and clamp it to the clothesline that hung between his creation and the fence posts that stood along the drive. Then he would lift his chin and look through our living room window, his familiar gray eyes searching beyond the glass where I stood just out of sight. He never broached the no-man’s land between his house and ours, never set foot on our lawn or knocked on the door. After a few minutes he would turn and walk back up the drive and into the house, leaving his half-full beer warming on the porch.
The messages were one word, maybe two, sometimes questions, but never sentences, as if he’d lost the ability to form a cohesive phrase. Love, they read, or Afraid. I cried the day I read Forgive? and stole Hope to frame and hang on my wall, telling mom it was made by one of the neighborhood children I watched three afternoons a week.
I never left a reply.
Instead, I counted them at night while I laid in bed. Like sheep jumping over the moon, his words launched themselves into the space between, only to disappear when I opened my eyes.
They didn’t stop when she died, or when his kids left or when I went away to school. When I came home on breaks, new notes would be waiting, bright white index cards hanging on the line ready to be plucked.
It wasn’t until after mom was gone that I found them. All the notes I’d missed were stuffed into a shoebox in the corner of her closet, yellowed with age, victims of the elements. I sat there, sifting through them until I’d memorized every one. Then I went to the backyard and set them all on fire.
I think it was the silence that killed him. My silence. The words I wouldn’t say clawing their way up my throat only to escape across the street to strangle him while we both slept.
When Dad’s house went up for sale, I bought it. His kids were too far away and too busy with their own lives to accept their birthright. On closing day, I walked across the street with a baseball bat and stood in front of the crucifix like I used to after receiving communion at church. A single white index card hung on the line; one word scrawled in Dad’s perfectly imperfect handwriting.
And still, it wasn’t enough.