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My Father’s Ghosts by Addie Hopes | Word Riot
Creative Nonfiction

December 15, 2009      

My Father’s Ghosts by Addie Hopes

Lightless, the van tramped the path. Whenever I hear this story—in all of its incarnations, in the versions that feature Mona and the versions (like my mother’s) that don’t mention her at all—it always begins without light. This is my father’s creation tale, his making. And so it begins in the dark. That silver van was older than either of them, and it rumbled and spat, yet my uncle drove slowly and without headlights in hopes that he and my father would go unnoticed. They called it this—the path—because it led between town and the place they’d made camp for the week. It was not a path, but ribbon of crushed grass where dandelions hung their frozen heads over the precipice.

My uncle squinted at the windshield. When he drinks, he reenacts this blind drive, squinting, tilting up his scarred chin, pretending not to see my mother, my cousins, or me sitting around the kitchen table, the milk crates on the porch. He leans close to his invisible wheel, his horned elbows butt my face, and I always laugh. My father sipped his beer and leaned out the window, navigating loudly—left left—watching for ruts, for dark things that could tuck under their wheels and upturn them. If the van began to roll, it would continue, the brothers folded inside, through the blue fog and down the mountain. “Who says things like that?” my uncle opens his black eyes wide to ask his audience, to prod my father’s shoulder. My father shrugs, rejoins “Who was right?” He smiles, closelipped, ashamed of his teeth. My father thought of this often, he thought of it now as a branch snapped under the tires and the van skidded. Foam splashed his wrist. Splinters struck his arms. His dogtags chimed. When the tires settled, he sucked his wrist and eyed his younger brother. “Learn to drive.” My father smiled, he smiles, his teeth dim in his beard.

The fire at the camp was fatter and longer-limbed than when they left. These are my father’s words, fatter, longer-limbed. His voice is gentle in his throat, cradled, so that I sometimes lean in to hear. I imagine his blaze in its flesh, its orange, its beckoning. Even my mother, who is a practical woman, tries to conjure the flames as she tells it. The campfire sits in my brain, and maybe in hers, as The Fire—none other as hot, as wild, as brightly burning. When my seventh grade boyfriend burns me with a lighter’s unimpressive tongue, I tell him this. He blushes, he walks across the football field and back to the school alone. The group of teenagers had swollen, too—at least a dozen clustered on tattered blankets, on the dirt. They weren’t surprised. Since the morning Mona caught Tom taking his bath in the lake, each night more appeared. Mona and Juan at first, then others whose names they didn’t learn. They had money—enough—from their month in Texas dust pumping gas and eating tinned beans, so they kept buying beer and the kids kept coming, and nobody from town asked them leave.

A tall boy broke from the trees with an armful of wood. He fed it to the fire piece by piece. The kids scattered, dancing back from the bright spray. My father’s pupils pinned their fleeing brown backs, the fluttering beneath their necks. He leveled his flat pink finger. Tom let the van coast to a stop. My father aimed and whispered a shot. Thirteen times. The dry pop of his lips, the glottal rush of breath. He crouched behind the window, steadying the fourteenth—the tall boy dusting his palms— in his sight.

He doesn’t say this, no one does, it sneaks through the story, heavyfooted; I don’t have to ask. My cousins climb over one another when he aims at us. Through lawn chair slats, beneath the tabletop, he chases us slippery and screaming to the edge of the pond, to the edge but never in, never where the bottom is muddy and the water is dark and children could lose themselves, their toes, to the rock-and-leather snappers. My father is bare-chested and enormous and he gathers us three under his humid arms, carries us back to our dinners. Just before my tenth birthday my mother, who’s never liked the game, clasps his finger midcock.

Six months later, Christmas, we watch a fifties Western in our pajamas while my mother’s at Mass; some dusty hatted anti-hero in a dark saloon peers over his whiskey, hand twitching at his holster, watching the world go by one body at a time.  “That’s how it is,” he says, his own hand pink and bloated at the knuckles. His candy cane’s reddened tip bobs at the screen. He’s excited, leaning over his knees, nodding rapidly. “That’s exactly how it is.” He turns to me, laughing, his hard palm warm on my head.

When he was finished, he swung a case of beer above his head and waved, relieved. The teenagers cheered.

Two boys and Juan trotted to the van. They grinned at my father and convened around my uncle, chattering as they helped him unload. Tom knew the same spattering of Spanish my father did: what they learned from the Mexican drifter they taxied across the river, from the toothy, bickering sisters who ran the registers at the Amoco.  But the teenagers had decided that he—darker and habitually silent—could be talked to. Tom stood in the back of the van, rooting quietly through the cooler, distributing Budweiser and hard packs of hotdogs to the boys below and nodding intermittently.

My father passed between them, shouldering the beer. Mona sat alone on a blanket near the fire. Despite the cold, her legs were bare to her chapped knees. Her tennis shoes cupped one another in the dirt. “Jimmy!” she called—one of the few English words she knew. He doesn’t say, he never says, but in the slow, soft way he says her name I hear how He loved the cinders in her voice, the way each word crawled from her in its own ash carapace. He hesitated, as if he couldn’t see her. He wanted to hear it again. “Jimmy!” She raised her skinny arm.

Mona was not a beautiful girl. Not nearly as pretty as Mommy, he says, and puts his mouth to my hair, whether she’s around or not. His chapped lips scratch my forehead.

His head in Mona’s lap, Tom whispers this, “his head in her lap, like a dog,” when I am seven and he is recovering from a fever  and my mother’s in the kitchen cutting cucumber wedges for snack, “like a dog,” my father reached into the case and tossed beer after beer into the air. The kids dove through the grass—wrestling over the beers. A few cans rolled into the wet-eyed dark; these, the younger ones chased. Mona giggled; muscles spools in her belly wound, unwound, against his ear. Since yesterday, she’d painted her toenails orange. Puckering, sucking on some sour thought, he taps my thumb. “Don’t ever use that. Must be the ugliest color they make.” I steal a bottle of Carrot Dream from the drugstore and sleep with it under my pillow for weeks, until the cheap seal cracks and I wake up tasting varnish. I wrap the bedsheets in two thick plastic bags before I throw them away. My mother asks what happened; I say I wet the bed, I cry. I cry honestly. My father secrets me under his  arm and walks me to the kitchen for breakfast, casting black glances at his wife who stands stiffly in her bathrobe, holding a  sack of trash at arm’s length. I am convinced he knows, that he can smell the orange, and I cannot look up from my milk.

A fat, waxy child folded on Mona’s blanket and sat near my father’s thigh. Wheezing, he studied his salvaged beer. My father watched a wing of ash flit onto his shoulder. It perched. An uncaught can whistled on its way into the fire, then exploded. My cousins demonstrate every summer, again and again. The blue flames—yellow smell. Juan and his friends ran back to the group, whooping. My father tipped his head and laughed. The child, still gulping air, darted after another lost beer, pumping his thick white arms to keep with the others.

Juan squatted next to my uncle, making and unmaking fists as my father kissed the cups of Mona’s collarbones, traced the curled fingers of her ribs, drew rings around her navel through her dress. Sometimes, my father caught Juan watching as she stroked his beard, the tangled hairs beneath his shirt. Her brother? Boyfriend? This, no one seems to know. My father alternates. He gets up from the table if I interrupt, if I ask “but last time…”, and then the rattling forks my mother quiets are all the story left. Brother, lover, it didn’t matter. Juan, like Tom, had a knife—and no gun. He stood a full head above my father, but his tendons strained too taut under his skin. Still an unripe nut. When he grew into a man, Juan would be strong.

Threads of the fog froze and fell. My father sat back as Mona wound her legs, tentacular, around his waist. My father is a shy man, won’t brush his teeth in public, won’t kiss my mother openmouthed if I’m close by. He says: “we sat on the blanket”, but he studies his bitten cuticles, Tom’s eyebrows bump around in his forehead, and my mother looks away. But I imagine. Mona touched the red welts the snapped branch left on his arms. She frowned, making the fretful “o” sounds girls make. I know the noise. I’ve made it myself, sitting on a blanket, undressing, undressed. She bent and kissed the air above the wounds. His fingers searched the scabs on her knees, the fuzz guarding her thighs. The brothers were leaving in the morning, headed someone new. Tonight, then. When the screams began, my father thought someone had thrown another can into the fire—the hiss, the detonation. He grasped the prickled skin on her ass and laughed.

Another scream.

Mona dismounted, clasping her skirt tightly around her. She spun away from the fire—toward the lake, the caves, the tunneled, discharging dark.

Tom’s hand crept to the knife in his pocket. The fire spat. My father rubbed his knuckles—which smelled like Mona— into his beard. He considered his rifle, hidden under a t-shirt in the van.

The brothers looked at one another, each gauging if the other wanted to get involved. They’d had messes like this before, stepping in where they weren’t wanted. They’ve got other stories. About girlfriends, boyfriends, wives in secluded places—the corners of highway rest stops, the midnight parking lots of constructions sites and abandoned buildings, patches of bushes or trees.  At first, they fought. But the Michigan man my father had to shoot in the stomach and the deep purple scar his beaten wife burrowed into Tom’s forearm taught them to be less zealous. So they studied each other in the fickle light. What to do.

Again, closer, the wailing.

The tallowy child began to cry. “Alejo.” Mona’s whisper was fierce. I can hear them both—the whimper, the reprimand. She opened her palms behind her. My father made room on the blanket as Alejo came close. She softened into sibilance and held the child’s hand. She offered her other to my father, and he took it. She felt her bones shift between his fingers, and he loosened his grip, then let go. He had no idea how to manage this hand.

The tall boy, the one who’d fed the fire, sat on his heels next to Juan. The two conferred, their dark heads bobbing. Solemn, they turned toward the crowd. Juan nodded, and the boy announced, “La Llorona.” My father mispronounces her: “Larona” Tom—“Leona”—is worse. They take her “weeping” from her. Mona pulled Alejo under her arm. The small ones crept in. There was suddenly no room on the blanket, and my father stepped out of the hot, whimpering mass.

My father didn’t understand. “Do you know her?” he asked, looking now at Mona (busy petting the children) and now at Juan. Juan studied my father, patient. “Do you know her? If you know her, let’s get her.”  Juan turned to Tom, his black eyebrows flat across his forehead, awaiting translation. Tom stared past them.

My father strode across the grass and towered he does tower, he rises like steel and glass and skin over the squatting boys.  “Do you know her?”

Juan stood. “Do you know her?” he repeated. He cocked his head, puzzled.

My father was abruptly very sure that Juan did understand him. That they all did. That there was some plan at work here—some ruse. He restrained the urge to feel the boy’s face crunch and wet beneath his hands. He retreated to the van. He felt Mona’s warm eyes follow him, he felt the small trembling hoard around her.

Inside, the screams faded. He surveyed their things. He knew precisely where he’d stashed the gun. He’d wrapped in a shirt and stuck it half-under the passenger’s seat. But in the van, the air was cold and clean and he did not feel the need to rush back. He was angry—with them, with her— he felt betrayed—by them, by her— and he needed to wait before facing it all with a firearm. He took a pair of jeans from the hotplate, folded them, and placed in his bulging duffel. He lifted the lid of the cooler and felt immediately satisfied. It was full for the first time in months, since they packed it in the back of this two hundred dollar van. Full, and with luxuries: a package of steaks, milk, a box of butter. They bought the steaks two days ago, but decided they’d wait until they left the mountains. They didn’t mind sharing their food (the Mexican had eaten with them for weeks), but there were too many teenagers. If they fed everyone even with potatoes and canned things, they’d go hungry until they settled long enough again to find jobs. The best they could do was the hotdogs, which Tom had bought by the case, and which my father—disgusted— wouldn’t touch.

The back door opened, and Tom’s sharp, dark face pushed into the van. My father sat on the mat they’d bought to wipe their feet on, but never did. He balanced his shotgun on his legs. He was drinking slowly from the carton of milk. “They’re terrified,” Tom said. “It’s some kind of ghost story.”   My father offered the milk to his brother. Tom drank, then refolded the lips, and tucked it in the cooler. “Some mother drowned her kid. Seems that now she’s looking for it.” Tom smiled. “But she’ll take anyone.”

My father tapped the barrel on his boot. “Did they tell you all this in English?”

“What? No.”

“Then you know a hell of a lot more Spanish than I thought you did.”

My uncle examined my father carefully. I’ve seen this look, this wary watching, as if waiting for something unpleasant to hatch. He watched the gun, the hands with their wiry hairs and their fidgeting fingers. “They acted it out for me.”

This felt plausible, and my father grunted softly.

Tom jingled the keys in his pockets. “They’re afraid to leave. I’m thinking I’ll drive.”

“All of them?”

“Two trips.”

“Let’s do this, first.” My father scooted past Tom and dropped onto the ground through the open door. He grinned. “It’ll be fun.”

The kids had gathered into a single group. My father heard Mona and Juan arguing. Their spindly arms gestured violently toward the van, down the mountain, toward the lake on the far side of camp. He dragged his gun behind him, drawing a trail.

When my mother tells this part, her favorite part, he’s a clown. He performs, for her. He cups his hand around his mouth. I see his lips, the chapped corners pulling. “La-roh-na” he called, singing each syllable. “La-roh-na. I have your ba-by.”

Mona and Juan stopped shouting. Mona broke from the rest. She rushed to him, calling his name, patting his shoulders with hot, frantic hands. “Jimmy, Jimmy, Jimmy.” She was crying, and strands of hair were caught across her face.

“La-roh-na. I ate your ba-by.” He continued, past the circle of firelight. She followed him, grasping his arms and pulling him back. He tugged her along, as long as she’d keep hold. They were almost to the lakeshore when Juan overtook them and wrenched her away. She struggled against her brother (her lover?), howling in throaty Spanish, her words like live things, leaping, raking. Juan took her hair and her wrist by the fistful, and my father continued toward the wailing caves.

He dug the barrel of his shotgun into the frozen grass. Beneath the ever-loudening Mexican ghost, he could still hear Mona’s susurrant cries. So much noise. He shouted into the blue fog, shouting it all down.

He had half-expected silence when he reached the caves. The ground was mossy, here, and he slipped as he walked down the sloping ground toward the orifice. This close, he could hear how the echoes built the sound, expanded it.

He fired one shot.

He heard the wind a moment before he felt it; he heard it collect in the chamber before it rushed him. He steadied himself. His eyes closed, he thrust his gun into the shrieking onslaught of air. He racked the pump until the gun rasped, emptied.

There was blood when he looked, but not much. This is what he always says—not much—for my sake, I think. My mother makes no similar concession. At his feet and just inside the cave, brown bats lay burst and twitching.  A massacre.  To the left of his foot, a bat spun, one-winged, “in a puddle of its innards”, my mother interrupts. She shows her crooked tooth, smiling. He put the hot metal mouth to his cheek. The caves were quiet. He lowered his foot and let the thing die.

At the camp, Tom stretched out on his sleeping bag, peeling black tinfoil from a potato. When my father slumped beside him, Tom cut it in half.

“You kill anyone?”

My father shrugged. “We’re leaving in the morning, right? So what’s it matter?” The skin of the potato scorched his tongue, but when he bit the center was cold and tasted green.  “You need to drive anyone home?”

“Ran off scared as hell when you started shooting.” Tom swallowed. “Mona chased you again.”

“She all right?”

He shrugged. “Juan doesn’t like to share.”

My father woke before dawn, so the story goes, when Tom touched his shoulder. The fire had burned itself out. A few gray logs slept in the pit, a few cans curled in the ash. The morning was cold, and it stunk.

“They even got my knife.”

“What?” My father propped himself on his elbows and asked it again. “What?”

Tom lifted his pillow and pointed to the empty grass. “Even my knife.”

My father searched the grass for his gun. No gun. He struggled out of his sleeping bag. The van’s back door was already open.  The van looked bigger, so much bigger, drained of their possessions. The cooler, the hotplate, the crate of canned food, their duffels were all gone. They had never lost so much, because they’d never had so much, but it was the not the first time or the last that their food and their supplies would entirely disappear.

My father cuffed his brother’s shoulder. “And how’d you let them get your knife? It was under your fucking head.”

Tom spread his fingers. “Maybe it was the ghost.” He punches my father flatknuckled in the leg and still insists, “the ghost.” My father shrugs his eyebrows. He peeled off his shirt and his pants, and he piled them under his shoes. “Watch these?” Naked, he crunched across the frosty grass toward the lake.

My father dug matches from his pocket, and he started to urge their last fire here to life.

I imagine what happens after, the ragged, unspoken end of the legend. A secret shimmers above me, in the smoke, while they laugh and pass their cigarette, while my uncle prods until my father stands, bellows “La-ro-nah. I ate your ba-by”, while my mother tips the last of her winecooler into our bonfire. My father shakes his head good-naturedly, touches my hair with his heavy hand.

My bedtime is blighted by a creature at the window, tangled curls and gaunt brown face, crouching in my closet, tapping from behind the drywall where she creeps with the small brown mice. I stage my bears like an army at the edges of my quilt and wait. There is rightness in her coming for me. I fall asleep sitting up to her lullaby, and I am surprised each morning when I’m alive. For years, I name her La Llorona.  Then I am sixteen, it is three am, and I am limping upstairs, lying down muddy, refusing to cry because my date, the asshole, isn’t worth it. And when the creature comes, I recognize her. I am her.  And I tell the story again.

Mona said his name. He didn’t turn around. He didn’t trust the noises in these mountains.  She said it again. She stood away from him, hesitating on the path. She was dressed in loose jeans and a long wool sweater. Her hair was pulled back from her face. He could see the bruises, the skin stuffed with blood.  One eye would open only a swollen slit. She held a thermos in her hands.

My father brushed the ash from his pants.

She offered him the coffee. He motioned to the ground, and she placed it where he pointed. He’d never seen her in the daylight.  The small dark hairs on her face.  The fragile ledge of jawbone. He noticed how young she was.  “What did he do to you?” How very young. “Can you understand me, Mona? What did he do to you?” My father did not bend to kiss her forehead, to smell her.

Mona scanned his face. She spoke to him in Spanish and then reached for his beard. Impossibly young. I tell myself that he— the man he was then, the man he is not now, furious and stricken and wild— He pulled away.

My father returned to his task. He struck another match and held it under the pyramid of sticks.  He heard her crying quietly behind him, but he did not turn.  When he was sure she’d left, he retrieved the thermos. The coffee was hot and pale and sweet, and he could not he can not bear it.

About the author:
Addie Hopes lives with her husband, their cats, and untidy stacks of books in Brooklyn, NY. She earned her MFA in Creative Writing from Brooklyn College and her BA from Sarah Lawrence College. She was a recipient of the Himan Brown Fiction Award for two consecutive years, and her most recent story will be appearing in an upcoming issue of Blood Orange Review. She teaches writing at Montclair State University.

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