shrines

The unseasonable warmth renders the day untrustworthy. It raises the level of expectation: Think of how disappointing tomorrow will be.

“Why do you always anticipate heartbreak?” my friend asks. It is a fair question. 

I say: “Why do you not?”

I run errands. I drop my daughter off at rehearsal. I take a pair of pants to be hemmed. I pack a box of books to take to the thrift store. I move the summer items to the back of the closet. 

The sun is out and then it is not. The sky is gray and fat clouds hover. 

I am thinking about lost fathers. The ones who leave and the ones who drift. My own father, a bit of each. When he moved to Jacksonville, he left a shoebox full of audiotapes behind. A legacy of sorts, my name scrawled on the cardboard. 

I didn’t know much of what he wanted from this life. He wrote songs and played his guitar sometimes. He practiced magic tricks that he taught himself from books. He preferred the term “illusionist” to magician. There’s no such thing as magic, he said. Watch closely. And use your head. 

Two women talk about making shrines. As a way to remember those who have gone before us. There are specific elements required - the artifacts, the stories, the flowers, the candles. Arranged to stimulate all the senses, to invite you in. 

I watch as in the slideshow, one woman weaves an arch of blossoms. The other places tiny votives in rows. 

Not knowing my father did not keep me from wanting. If he wrote me a letter, I wanted a phone call. When he called me, I wanted a visit. When he sent me a check to cover the airfare to see him, I wanted more than that, too. You come here, I told him, knowing he was not well enough to travel. 

I wanted proof. Evidence of his love. To know the contours of it, to test its boundaries. 

The things he left behind told nothing. The white guitar, badly out of tune. The paperback mysteries. The decks of cards. The tiny black and white television with its long silver antenna. A dozen plaid shirts hung on hangers. A wrist watch with a broken strap.

In my dream, I wander the perimeter of a walled city. I walk up to it, press my ear against the stone, hear nothing. I retreat. From the distance, I can see spires rising up against a sky streaked orange by the setting sun. 

There are no access points in the wall. As I pace there, pressing against it, no stone yields. I turn away and walk far but I am drawn back again and again as darkness falls. 

Perhaps what we want most in the end is to know that we have mattered to the people we have loved. That we took up space. 

Show me the packet of letters tied with string that you kept in a drawer. The yellowed photographs you carried with you, the paper worn soft from your hands. 

Tell me how even after you moved away, you thought of me on my birthday. On the nights of my dance recitals. On the day I graduated from college. How the heat was oppressive that day in Jacksonville and you wished a cool breeze my way. 

I never had a chance to listen to the audio cassettes. I can no longer recall whether they were taken when my apartment was broken into or whether I voluntarily left them behind. I like to think that had I heard them all, I would finally have learned something about this man who was, for such a short time, my father. 

That as I listened to his voice through the crackle of the plastic tape, I could hear beneath his words, that I had brought him some happiness. That if I paid close enough attention, I could perhaps know the shape of the imprint I had left on his heart.