It was a Saturday, and Mother had, months before, scheduled a luncheon in honor of the arrival of her best friend—all the way from Kindergarten!—Cindy Marcona née Smith at the Swan House, where chicken salad was apportioned into hollowed-out puff pastry swan bellies and adorned with honeydew melon cut to closely resemble wings. They also served a frozen fruit salad, featuring candied fruits imprisoned in sour cream ice crystal molds and topped with shaved coconut and a flat-leaf parsley garnish.
“Please don’t leave me with her,” I overheard Dad in the master bathroom, although Mother rarely scheduled luncheons with friends, and I could see through the sliver between the door hinges how much she longed to fork cornichons onto a primrose painted saucer in a room with a picture window overlooking a garden made to mimic one in the Cotswolds, flipping her sprayed-stiff bangs and releasing crystals from a pink packet of artificial sweetener, blending them into unsweetened tea in a tall ridged glass with the gentle swirling of a slim straw.
His face purpled as he sat on the toilet, pale feet spread wide, but she left anyways, and I scrambled beneath the bed before she could see that I’d seen.
It was neither sunny nor cloudy, and he told me we would seek out grills, small egg-shaped ones we could use for barbecuing steaks while we searched for a full-time replacement for our enormous, family-sized grill, now defunct and useless on the hexagonal back patio, shrouded in its oilcloth cloak, water puddling in the stiff wrinkles, home to mosquito larvae and leftover spring pollen. What he wanted was specific, virtually unconditional: one of them that holds three ribeyes, that you can ignite by plugging into an outdoor electrical outlet, a grill that’s navy blue, or chrome.
There were rows of rhododendron bushes, maple saplings, potted herbs and straw flowers at the entrance to the Home Depot, but although we were constantly on the prowl for shade-loving shrubbery, Dad spurned them, and I followed his awkward stride, dodging salesman glances, scrambling past drills, buzz saws, miter saws, saws held by two people and drawn backwards, forwards, bathroom fixtures, an insurmountable pegboard wall of toilet seats, which I learned from their tags could cost up to ninety-nine dollars, and even if I counted every penny I’d planted in the herb garden, every dresser drawer pouch bloated with nickels, I could never afford anything so expensive, and before I knew it I was alone and faced with more screwdrivers than I could wrap my hands around, and adjustable wrenches which were, I assumed, far-removed from anywhere grills could possibly be gleaming, and Mother would never have left me to my own devices even in a cozy hardware nook owned by grandfathers, pants belted high above pregnant-seeming manbellies, nose hairs peaking from distended nostrils, cleft chins warmly nodding her and me towards high-gloss bathroom paint options in colors like foamscape and amaryllis cream, and as I marveled at soft pastel swatches, imagining powder room walls striped like sherbet, or solidly egg-colored, I breathed in comforting, abundant toolsmell.
But, here, I stared up at the ceiling, and even if I stood on my own shoulders, and my duplicate had a third me on her shoulders, and the third me had a fourth me, until I numbered three hundred, more than three hundred, even, I still wouldn’t be able to rest my palm against the lofted ceiling, and I’d encountered few ceilings so high in my life, and once was Church, the other Harry’s Farmer’s Market, where you could hide forever between soaring mounds of apples, melons, and even the strangest vegetables could be sampled, and the samples were doled into cups the size of cough syrup lid covers that doubled as cups, for drinking. But here there were no samples, and I thought of how it would be if I were somehow relegated to the topmost beams, thought of understanding, or trying to, the layout of the store, the mystery of nails driven into plywood, the choice between one kind of hammer and another, reinventing spaces with specific hanging light fixtures, artificial grass that improves outdoor gathering spaces, or should. It would, might, be similar to fish tank observation, realizing that varieties of rocks, coral, plastic seaweed swaying can affect the livelihood of its water-breathing inhabitants, that shrimp, if they avoid being eaten, are possibly the most important aspect of tank maintenance, and, secondly, snails, which could cling to any surface, however high.
I was distracted from ceiling dreams by a pair of defined masculine calves, which appeared in my peripheral vision, knees grazed by cuffed navy Bermuda shorts, and DAD, I said, following the promise of Dadlegs past a pyramid of brightly-boxed Halogen bulbs to where non-Halogen light bulbs were stacked, and far above me were a million bellowing half-conversations on wattage, outdoor lighting, track lighting, lighting nestled into popcorn ceilings, and when I finally caught up, we were standing next to a fortress of washers and dryers, washer/dryer combinations, stacked or side-by side. Breathless, I clasped myself against him, rubbing my cheeks against the soft hairs on his thighs.
“I’m not your Dad,” he said, and I could feel him shaking me off his manlegs, laughing, looked up into a face that was entirely unfamiliar, and Asian, and other people were laughing, too, and I realized I was surrounded by a swarm of unfamiliar fathers, and how could I ever find my own in this unfathomable Dad-sea, and some of these Dads were likely also sons, and Grandfathers, and I thought of how I’d never known a Grandfather personally, that after tossing a sprig of baby’s breath into his open casket, I threw rocks at oak trees during Guy Alfred Senior’s funeral, noting the dust caking my black patent maryjanes, with a convertible strap you could push to the back so that they became pumps.
I was lost, and my Dad was far from the only Dad with night-black hair in a blue hooded sweatshirt, and I could tell a passing Other Dad any gloriously meaningful detail about him, how he drew his microscope close as he examined tissue slabs dyed deep pink, but none of it would help me find him again, and the Dads kept coming, some of whom may or may not have been Grandfathers, all of whom were certainly sons, some with sons of their own, encircling me, approaching me one after the other, but at this point I was crying so violently I could barely say grill, he was searching for the perfect GRILL, and by the time some of the DadGrandfatherSons transported me to the store corner where outdoor furniture with weather-proof cushions were set up to look like a real patio, flanked by more grills than I thought could possibly exist in one space, or in the world,realized there are grills that are square, and grills that are perfect spheres that come in so many colors, many of which are matte, I saw him crouching between two inflatable palm trees, and he was crying, too, and it was the first time I’d ever seen him cry. He looked me straight in the face. So many grills, he said, how can I ever choose which I love the most?
Alex Sears hails from Dunwoody, GA. She is hard at work on her first novel.