The father sits down on the floor near the bed and says Now I am going to tell you a story. But then: he doesn’t tell a story. He sits there in the near dark looking lost and breathing with his ragged half-drunk filling up the room. The daughter waits, staring up at him, her father who does not tell stories. Who is not telling a story now.
The room is lit by the slant of light from the closet door. The father entered the room with some ill-formed goodnight notion. Perhaps he thought inertia would carry him through. Now he is here on the floor with his little girl turned toward him and she is the most gorgeous thing he can imagine. The brightest star, and no words for it. No way to push this feeling out of himself and into the world. His daughter looks at him, tentative and waiting, and nothing comes. The father wonders if a bird could grow so fat with seed that it could no longer fly. And what would happen to that bird? Something terrible, probably. Gutted by some cat. Washed down a storm drain and starved by its gluttony. Connected forever to some patch of earth. Something fathers can’t bear. Something to be avoided.
Finally, the daughter speaks up, saying Once upon a time. But she doesn’t know what comes next either, being small, having never felt the burden of planning out logical sequence and consequence. Embarrassment settles in the room and weighs on both of them. The father rattles ice in his glass, the daughter flicks the corner of the blanket that’s she’s wrapped into her little clenching fist. And maybe this is now the story: that for fathers and daughters it isn’t often easy. That to say we never really see each other is untrue, only that when we do, something makes us look away. A good story is one that sometimes has a lesson in it. The two of them sit there and wait for this thing they’ve made to pass them by.
The father knows he should be better at father. The daughter will know this too, but later. Later, when she is grown, later when her own child sleeps in this bed, and it is summer vacation, later after much strain and silence that has happened between this first moment and the new one and the father comes in again—perhaps fatted on seed—glass held offhand and that same sour breath whiskey clinking man still, rounder now, yes, and frailer now, and all those old man things that happen very slowly and then all at once. And there, beyond the conception of a little girl sitting up in bed in the slantlight from the closet, way out past what that light can reach, is a man named Gary who wonders where his brightest star went and who these people are in her place. And is that the story.
Zach VandeZande is an author and professor. He lives in Ellensburg, Washington (sometimes) and Washington, DC (sometimes). He is the author of a novel, Apathy and Paying Rent (Loose Teeth Press, 2008), and a forthcoming short story collection, Liminal Domestic: Stories (Gold Wake Press, 2019). He knows all the dogs in his neighborhood. Find him at zachvz.com.