Scarlet Poppies – Dani Dymond

Anniversaries never escaped his attention––whether it was Pearl Harbor Day, or the five-year mark after opening that bank account at Smithson, my father kept a note of life’s littlest happenings on his calendar, a hefty whiteboard that was wiped clean with the latest 1st. He filled it out with a precisely updated version every time there was a new month, removing what was as if it never occurred. April was recently detailed, complete with the obligatory numerals, birthdays, and, of course, anniversaries. On the third was scrawled “Six full years since last promotion,” a somewhat bittersweet acknowledgement of his stagnancy at the firm; the twelfth read, “Second rotation around the sun since Louie’s Diner closed,” mourning his favorite burger joint, where he had fattened himself most effectively. But today, the eighteenth, where I knew to look for the tight-lipped phrase “Ten years since Carolyn,” was blank, visibly erased. This date was an even decade from the day when my mother disappeared.

Vanishing without a clue left to find, she had been entirely removed from our lives, burying my father in months of the compulsory missing persons reports, public interest, and personal investigations, which had officially declared him innocent of any––God forbid––foul play. The “case,” as it came to be called, went blisteringly cold after several months of fruitless searching. I had just graduated college, returning home for some obligatory time off with my parents afterward, but she was gone within a week, almost as if she didn’t want me visiting. Shame. So I was made to go homeward permanently after her departure: not for a lack of career prospects or because of financial instability, but because I was responsible for helping my father reconcile himself to his wife’s desertion. She had wanted out, and she got it.

Nobody grieved more than he did, though I can attest that their marriage was never a loving one. I was an only child, whose adolescence was viciously cratered by their back-and-forth obscenities and verbalized grudges. Parents who claw at each other’s throats like that do not get the front row seat that their kids do, where we are forced to bear witness to the life-altering dysfunction of a relationship in turmoil, forever imprinted with the examples we shouldn’t follow. Granted, I could never hold a steady relationship of my own, always surrendering to petty disagreements and making mountains out of molehills; these letdowns confirmed that I must have unconsciously adopted the negative model I was so often exposed to.

After my failed attempts at early-thirties adulthood, trying and failing to shove my missing parent away from view, I truly surrendered to home, where the ghost of my mother still loomed large, a perpetual Halloween haunt. It almost tickled me, watching my father continuously scurrying about in an effort to locate his lost spouse, even though he had wished her dead so many times before, challenging her to go fuck herself whenever their fights reached breaking points. “Your mother’s head wasn’t screwed on right, when they were making her,” he spat at me over breakfast when I was nine. “There’s a missing bolt or two, or three, or four. Accounts for that raging bitch mode she spins herself into all the damn time.”

Mom’s decision to finally flee from this obvious fairytale seemed carefully orchestrated, being that the eighteenth was their wedding anniversary, but Dad’s commitment to commemorations persisted, and that square on his calendar in April mutated into the day that wife-and-mother up and abandoned her post; he’d scribble her name with a mixture of fury and sorrow surging through his veins, acknowledging her cop-out, a move that he, as a man who loathed quitters, perceptibly despised. He trudged on for years without giving anyone, namely me, a sufficient explanation for his erratic moods, tempers that shifted from anger to loneliness: “We may not have been perfect, Mara, but it still hurts. You wouldn’t understand.”

As I stood in his office on that April eighteenth, staring at the stacks of national newspapers (where he scanned the obituaries, just in case), leftover “Have you seen me?” flyers (which our neighbors surely scoffed at, knowing Mrs. Grady was long gone), and cartons of cigarettes (a habit he picked up afterward) that littered the floor, I held my breath, eyes bolted shut. These papery, smoky smells clung to my clothes, my hair, my mind. His obsessions were becoming my own, his anniversaries blending into mine, so here I was, in his study, blankly pondering this year’s empty eighteenth, my mother’s special day.

The Marlboro exhaling itself between my fingers committed suicide, burning down to a stub on my skin. I dropped it to the carpet with a muttered shit. Thankfully the orange shag beneath my bare toes didn’t catch fire like I always envisioned it would if it met the right sparks. Scolding from my father ping-ponged around my skull: “Dammit, Mara, can’t you do anything right?” Despite the lack of actual admonishment, I answered aloud, “No. I’m useless, Dad, you told me so.” Crouching, I lowered myself to brush the crumbled ashes into an upturned palm. It was there that I felt the warmth of something teasing my taste buds just before two crimson drops freckled the meaty pad of my thumb, mingling with the burnt crisps of tobacco.

I tongued the source of this bleed, which felt hot and whose sting summoned tears. Outside of my inner fascinations, the calendar’s owner was nowhere to be found, as absent from the moment as he was from my happier thoughts, if I had any. Perhaps finding him would rectify this desolate hole of April the eighteenth, provide some sort of justification for its vacancy. It needed something, after all. I meandered down the hallway toward our living room, sick of my surroundings. Quaint, with the same outdated furniture and décor as the rest of our lopsided single-story, the den showed no outward signs of life.

Funny, I thought. Not a living soul in the living room… I started to hum a sort of tune to this ironic observance as I wandered the house, repeating over and over in my head, Not a living soul in the living room… Once, my mother sang “Three Blind Mice” to help me sleep when I was little, during those almost tranquil years before my parents gave up trying to reserve explosive screaming matches for the private time when I wasn’t within earshot. She had stumbled and forgotten some of the words to the lullaby, especially during the faster verses; it was odd to see how embarrassed she got, even though her audience was just a drowsy five-year-old. To cope, she threw a fist down, bruising one of my chubby thighs before storming out of the room, content to ignore my subsequent sobbing.

The slow but choppy chorus to that melody revisited me then, floating along the wafting wind from our overly ambitious A/C unit, giving me a backdrop to pose my silent chant against. An involuntary shiver rocked me, and I lost the momentum with which I was both whistling and walking down the dreary, hollow hall. Framed photos, hung solely to show some faked family cheer for whatever visitors dared enter, pulled at my gaze. A snapshot of us all from a skiing trip when I was nineteen prompted me to remember––the brawl that ensued from a missing ski pole resulted in a minor stabbing injury (swept under the rug, to avoid attention) along with a black eye and chipped teeth. I watched them from a desk chair in the hotel room, numb to the scene, the bickering that snowballed into its typical violent crescendo. This was the last vacation we took as a unit of three, and the awakening I needed to correct the problem.

Circling back to the paisley wallpaper and leather sofas, I tapped a stray finger against my bleeding lip, unmoved by its pleas. It trickled toward my knuckle and pooled in the lines there. My eyes, inexplicably drawn from this minor gore, were met with the trail of mud on the rug that was surely setting to stain soon, leading to a thrashed pair of gardening clogs in the corner. It wound around my father’s threadbare armchair toward the back door. A smile tugged at my mouth and I was moving again, droning on freely: Not a living soul in the living room… I shoved the screen back and it obliged me, springing open wide so I could admire the day’s work. It was the perfect ceremony, our decade anniversary celebration: “Dad, I know you’d probably like to see her again, to apologize for all those years…”

The conflict that pinched his cheeks ruddy when I was growing up flared at my statement, fresh flames. He had wound up like a lawn mower engine once we were in the backyard, loud as ever. “Apologize? Hardly. She shouldn’t have run out on me, the coward. Leaving you here to pick up her slack. It may not seem fair to you now, Mara, but you being here makes things much better for us both.” He had chuckled, and I had winced. “I mean, you’re Suzy Homemaker because of it, for Christ’s sake! Perfectly trained. Maybe a man will want you now. Good parenting on my part, if you ask me.” I was silent, looking at the flowerbed I had been finishing up with my mother that very day ten years ago, disregarding Dad’s hoarse laughter.

The poppies, always so rich in color each spring, were winking at us in the breeze as I lifted the nearby shovel and brought it down with a bone-sizzling bang against the back of his balding head. His yells, complaints, and intimidations were irrevocably stifled. The second half of that screaming machine was finally eliminated, and I was at peace. My teeth made contact with fleshy lip as I swung; the tang was so sweetly life-affirming that I giggled as I dug up the thriving poppy beds, dribbling blood but assuring each petal that the roots would find more sustenance from this fresh source rather than the slightly smaller, sucked-dry skeleton hidden further below ten years ago. Her body had served its purpose well, unrequited in its commitment to finally do right (in the afterlife) by poppies.

It only took a few hours to reunite my squabbling parents then, knowing that the years-long break from one another would definitely do the trick. I stood stoic, now-smoothed soil greeting the recycled “Three Blind Mice” jingle during my revisit to their coupled grave. Admiring the job well done, I relished the eternal ceasefire while I retraced my steps inside, withdrawing to the office once more: I had a life event to rewrite. A made-blank square deserved some devotion, its rote content having been smeared away this year by the back of a certain daughter’s hand. Once I was finished, the Expo marker fell from my loosened fingers. A newly lit Marlboro between reddened lips warmed my face. I took a deep drag, the final silence wrapping me in a long-overdue hug, my undying comfort. My father’s calendar would forever reflect anniversaries––D-Day, Babe Ruth’s final game, America’s bicentennial… and, on April the eighteenth, two blackened poppies stretched wide, withering but waving back, blessedly mute, a reminder of the very best day.

Not a living soul…

 

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Dani Dymond is a 25-year-old graduate of Southern Connecticut State University (B.A., 2016) and California State University, Long Beach (M.F.A., 2018). Both a poet and a prose writer, her work has appeared in several journals and magazines. Her passion for literature is matched only by her love for unsolicited restaurant menu proofreading, intersectional feminism, and video montages of baby goats.

Read ‘Appraisal of the Water Serpents‘ also by Dani Dymond here.

 

 

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