Phoebe was ten years old the first time her father ran away from home.
It was the Sunday after he’d given a sermon on the parable of the lost sheep. She always said she remembered because she was drawing pictures of sheep on the leaflet with the tiny pencils used to fill out the visitor cards. When her mother saw this, she put the pencil in her pink leather purse, then got down in Phoebe’s face and said, “This is not how good girls behave.” Her perfume was thick, to cover the scent of cigarettes on her breath.
“Let us pray…” her father said from the pulpit. Everyone bowed their heads. Phoebe spent the rest of the service staring at her shoes and watching the stained glass make colors on the carpet.
After the service, the congregation gathered in the fellowship hall, where Mrs. Gardner would set out trays of pastries for children. The men conferred on the week’s tee times and the women traded gossip. This particular Sunday followed the usual routine: Phoebe stood by the doors in the narthex and watched the Sunday School girls play hopscotch on the sidewalk. Her mother made her rounds in the fellowship hall, making plans for lunch with the Women’s Book Club. Her father stayed in the sacristy as long as possible, hanging his vestments and making civil conversation with the women in the altar guild. It was only when the fellowship hall was close to empty that her father emerged to find her mother, then stood in patient silence as she finished her conversation.
“Are you ready?” he asked, and she nodded with a smile, at which point they collected Phoebe at the door. The three of them marched across the parking lot, her mother’s heels clicking on the asphalt and the soles of my father’s shoes making their own clacking noise, that satisfying sound men’s shoes just didn’t make anymore. Once in the car, her mother lit a cigarette as her father started the ignition. Phoebe’s parents would both wave politely to the few people crossing the parking lot as they pulled onto the street, but after that, the conversation ceased. Her mother took drags on her cigarette and her father tapped his fingers on the steering wheel in an indistinct rhythm. Their car rides together were always silent.
This was the way things were every Sunday. This was their ritual.
Her father packed his suitcase and her mother made turkey sandwiches. Once they’d all eaten, her father stood at the door to the garage and said, “I can’t leave without a hug, can I?” She ran to his arms and he held her. She hadn’t learned to hate him yet. She wasn’t used to him leaving.
He placed a kiss in her palm, then lifted her hand to her cheek. “For when you miss me,” he said. Then he hugged her again and whispered, “See you soon, my angel.”
Her mother rolled her eyes and let out a little cough.
“Of course, how could I forget?” he said, pulling her in and kissing her cheek.
“I love you,” he said.
She didn’t say anything.
She took a drag of her cigarette.
Phoebe stood in the driveway and waved as he backed the car into the street and flickered the headlights for her. Her mother put out her cigarette in the ashtray on the kitchen table and turned on the television.
His flight back from Memphis was supposed to land on Thursday. The phone rang on Friday morning. Phoebe’s mother answered the phone in the kitchen with a half whisper, so Phoebe could only hear her voice and not her words.
“Where’s Dad?” she asked when her mother returned to the living room and sat on the couch.
“Where’s Dad?” Phoebe asked.
“Your Uncle Jack is sick,” her mother said, fumbling with her lighter and a cigarette. “Your father went to see him.”
“What’s wrong with Uncle Jack?”
“Your father didn’t say. He wanted to lay hands and pray with your uncle.”
“When is he coming back?”
“Did you finish your homework?” her mother asked, tapping her cigarette against the pewter ashtray on the coffee table. “It’s almost time to go and you don’t want to miss the bus again.”
Phoebe loaded her backpack and left for school.
Her father didn’t return home in time for service on Sunday. Instead, Deacon Murphy gave the sermon and a priest from St. Andrew’s blessed the bread and the wine. No one seemed to notice anything was different. Mrs. Gardner set out trays of blueberry muffins that tasted like sawdust, the men scheduled their tee times for the week, and the women twittered over the new family who’d just moved from Carbondale. Phoebe stood in her usual place by the narthex doors, running her eyes over the shape of their bare knees. Her mother stood in the fellowship hall, sipping coffee and delivering the line she’d practiced to anyone who asked: “He’s in Witchita, visiting his brother. He should be back next week.”
Phoebe’s father was gone for three weeks before she saw her mother cry. The sun had gone down and her mother sat at the kitchen table, cradling the phone between her ear and her shoulder. Phoebe could hear from her bedroom, her mother’s voice slinking up the stairs in a voice that sounded like quiet screaming. She crept to the landing to listen, her feet silent on the carpet.
Her mother’s face was a mess of shadows, the only light from the tip of her cigarette. It was enough to see tears congregating in her eyes, just above her manicured eyelashes.
“I don’t understand,” she said into the phone. “How dare you? How dare you?”
She threw the phone across the kitchen floor. Her hands trembled as she covered her face to bury the sound of her howling. Then came the sounds of heavy breathing as her mother pumped breath back into her body. Goosebumps rolled over Phoebe’s body, like her skin was trying to escape itself.
Her mother lowered her hands, so Phoebe could see her eyes flickering in the dark.
“What are you doing out of bed?” her mother roared. Phoebe ran back to her room, the rumpled covers her sanctuary. She pressed her palm to her face, trying to desperately to pry her father’s dried kiss from its resting place.
When sleep finally came, it brought with it dreams of wolves, made from glowing eyes and angled teeth. The sounds of snarling surrounded her, even as she woke in the blackness. Her breathing was heavy and it was impossible to know if her eyes were open or closed, if she was asleep or awake.
Her mother stood at the kitchen window the next morning, staring into the yard. Phoebe asked when her father was coming home. He mother just stared at trees lining the fence for a long time.
“Your uncle is sick,” she finally said. “very, *very,* sick.” A vacant stare occupied her face. She began to make breakfast without meeting Phoebe’s eyes, like their were secrets between her teeth.
The next afternoon, Phoebe’s mother sent her up the street to play at Maddie Ackerman’s house. This was a strange occurrence, as she’d forbidden Phoebe from playing with Maddie after seeing them hold hands on the swings at the park. Her mother had scolded her, once more with the adage, “That is not how good little girls behave.” When Phoebe had asked to spend the night at Maddie’s house later that spring, her mother refused. “They’re not a God-fearing family.” This only confused Phoebe, who hadn’t learned yet that God was something to be afraid of.
When she arrived at Maddie’s house, her mother showed her to the back yard, where Maddie was nestled in the swings of a new playset, the paint still glistening in all its primary-colored glory. Mrs. Ackerman then returned to the kitchen, parting with the charge, “You girls have fun.”
Maddie asked Phoebe what she wanted to do, but Phoebe went to the corner of the yard.
“What’re you doing?” Maddie asked, but Phoebe shushed her. She checked the kitchen window for Mrs. Ackerman’s silhouette, then pried several rotting fence posts loose, opening the same small gap the girls had once used to escape to the creek that ran parallel to the street.
“Follow me,” Phoebe told her. Curiosity had Maddie snared and she obeyed without any more questions.
The woods swallowed the girls, who followed the mulch path towards the end of the street. Phoebe came to where the trees faded into her backyard and waited. She watched for signs of life.
“What’s going on?” Maddie asked over Phoebe’s shoulder. Phoebe darted across the lawn without answering. Maddie followed. They crouched beneath the kitchen window, then Phoebe rose just enough to observe the secret meeting taking place at the kitchen table.
Her mother sat at the head of the table and a woman in a long purple dress sat beside her. The stranger had thick hair that fell to her waist and silver rings on her fingers. Tea cups and cookies had been set out on the table, but neither Phoebe’s mother nor the stranger seemed to care. They were holding hands with their eyes closed. Phoebe’s mother cried, this time making no attempt to hide it.
“What’s happening?” Maddie whispered, and Phoebe gave the only answer she had.
“I don’t know.”
Phoebe came home just before diner. Her mother still sat at the table, her only company the chorus of cigarette butts in the ashtray. The teacups hadn’t been touched, as though she’d forgotten them or maybe didn’t really notice they were there.
“Sit down,” her mother told her.
“Who was that woman?” Phoebe asked.
“Never you mind.”
“She was a psychic, wasn’t she?” Phoebe asked, remembering the time her mother had called the 800 number on TV, only to have her father tell her, “Those people are pagans, not to mention con-men.”
“Yes,” her mother said. “I needed her help.”
“Finding your father.”
“You don’t know where he is?”
“It’s complicated,” her mother said, fiddling with her lighter. “We’re going to pick him up tomorrow.”
“Where is he?”
“What’s he doing in Memphis?”
“It’s almost time for dinner.” Her mother put out her cigarette and stood. “Go lay out your clothes and I’ll get your suitcase. You can pack when we’re finished eating.”
They ate that night in silence, but not the comfortable kind, like when her father was around. There was a sterile emptiness to their lack of speaking. Her mother smoked, one cigarette after the next, while Phoebe dammed a river of gravy with the mashed potatoes on her plate.
They woke early, dressed, and ate breakfast at the kitchen table, once again, without speaking. Her mother wore a string of pearls and extra eyeshadow, but her face was a haze of cigarette smoke.
When they finished eating, they went to the garage.
“Where are we going again?” Phoebe asked.
“Why must you ask so many questions?” her mother said, loading the suitcases in the trunk.
Phoebe opened the passenger door, but her mother pointed her to the backseat.
“Dad lets me sometimes,” she said, buckling her seatbelt.
“Your father isn’t here.” Her mother put the key in the ignition and the car in reverse.
Her mother refused to play the radio, so only sound was the tires on the asphalt. There was nothing to do but think.
Watching her mother’s eyes in the rearview mirror only made her wonder why her father hadn’t come home yet. She knew her parents were different people, but she had always assumed their silent ride through life had been mutually agreed upon. It was just who they were. But something about the way her mother looked out at the road, the layers of makeup smeared across her face, the way her hands shook as she fiddled with her lighter, all these things were anything but normal.
Her thoughts strayed into imagining. Without her guidance, her mind made pictures of her father, standing in front of a house like the one where they lived, but newer and beautiful, with a new wife who had short blonde hair and a daughter who got good grades and made the soccer team and was all the things Phoebe wanted to be, but couldn’t. Maybe that’s why he was gone, she thought. Maybe she wasn’t enough for him anymore.
The sun was going down when they got the Memphis. The streets were lined with purple and orange. The people were strange to look at, spilling along the sidewalks and into the streets with their long hair and baggy clothes.
Phoebe asked where they were going and her mother only said, “Not now.” She lit another cigarette and her eyes swept from one side of the street to the other. She was hunting.
“What are we doing here?” Phoebe asked.
“I don’t expect you to understand any of this,” her mother snapped. “But your father needs us.”
“You don’t know where he is, do you?” I asked her. She looked away and flicked the ashes from her cigarette.
Phoebe joined in scanning the crowds, assuming her father was someplace among them. The people looked like the kind her parents had always warned her about, the kind you saw on television of getting beaten by policemen on the news. She didn’t know why her father would be there, but she expected to find him at any moment, passing out Bibles and preaching the gospel to the men with long hair and women in short skirts.
They came to a stoplight and her mother stared straight ahead through the windshield, trying not to be seen. Phoebe stayed vigilant in the back seat, still scanning the faces lining the street. She saw a bus stop at the corner and two women seated together on the bench, holding hands. One of the women turned to the other and kissed her check, a smile blossoming on her face. Her eyes were on fire with a joy.
The light turned green. Phoebe’s mother pressed the gas and then the women were a memory.
The search continued several more hours, until Phoebe’s mother grew tired and checked into a motel across from the fairgrounds. Phoebe watched from the backseat as her mother paid in the front office and bought a pack of cigarettes from the machine in the lobby. When they’d settled into the room, her mother asked if I was hungry.
“We can order whatever you like,” she said, setting her suitcase on the bed.
This was a rare moment, so Phoebe insisted on pepperoni pizza with mushrooms. They spent the evening in the motel room, Phoebe’s eyes fixed on the television and her mother smoking in the corner armchair. It was when her mother, having filled herself with a single slice of pizza, took the yellow pages from the nightstand between the beds and went into the bathroom with the phone. The TV was loud enough to cover Phoebe’s footsteps as she crept to the door and and pressed her ear to the wood. Her mother spoke quietly.
“Yes, I’m trying to reach my husband. It’s an emergency, but I forgot which hotel he said he’s booked in. His name is Nathan Smith. Is he registered with you? Of course, I’ll hold.”
Her mother never referred to her father like this, using his first name instead of the usual “Father” that came pinned to his chest.
There was then a prompt, “Thank you very much,” from the other side of the door and the sound of the receiver in the cradle. A scratching noise followed that could only be her pencil crossing out the name of the hotel in the phonebook, then a faint dial tone as she lifted the receiver again and dialed.
This went on for a while. Phoebe brushed her teeth without being told to do so and got in bed. She envisioned a green horizon, dotted with sheep, the last of which she counted before sleep fell over her. Her mother stayed in the bathroom.
Running water awoke her the next morning. Her mother stood at the mirror, leaning into her reflection and smearing her lips with a rouge that looked like war paint. Her dress was unlike anything Phoebe has seen her wear, a metallic green with a neckline that plummeted and fabric that wrapped her curves in an alluring embrace. She smacked her lips and packed her lipstick in a small bag, then strutted to her suitcase on the adjacent bed, arching her heeled-feet as though each step was practiced.
“Let’s go,” she said. “We need to leave.”
“What are you wearing?”
“Never you mind.”
There was no indication she had slept: her bed was still pristine, the comforter taut across the sheets and the pillows crisp.
Phoebe dressed, then they loaded the suitcases in the car and pulled out of the parking lot. Her stomach gurgled as they passed the diner at the end of the street.
“What about breakfast?”
Sunshine clawed its way through the sky, but the streets were hidden behind a sick haze. The air was thick and the buildings transformed the further into the city they ventured. Her mother was still quiet, but her face was twisted with a smile she couldn’t quite hide, her red lips pulled into a crimson bow. Sunglasses covered her eyes, locked on the road ahead. She knew where we were going.
She finally stopped the car just outside the doors of a lavish hotel, beneath the awning where a porter in a turquoise jacket stood at attention.
“Wait here,” she said. Her heels clicked on the pavement in her wake as she closed the car door and strutted into the lobby. The wretched smile on her face made Phoebe feel sick. It wasn’t happiness or joy or any of the other reasons to smile. This was something else.
Phoebe closed her eyes and prayed, there in the backseat of her mother’s car. She folded her hands and prayed, like her father had always said she should. But it was then that she realized she didn’t know how. Curiosity and confusion and fear and wonder were all surging in her mind, but there weren’t any words. All she could do was pray in pictures and feelings. This was all she had, simply because she didn’t know how to turn all these pictures and feelings to words. She hoped God would understand. God spoke in pictures and feelings. That’s what she’d always been taught. She kept her eye closed, silently saying the kind of prayer that’s a question, but a question without any real answer. She was remembering those two women from the bus stop and the smiles on their faces, full of joy and happiness and all the good things you hear in those songs on the radio. Those two women were in love, even though both her parents had told her time and time again how evil and wrong that was and it made her all twisted up inside. She’d never seen her parents that happy. It made her wonder how her parents had fallen in love, but then she thought, what if they never had been?
There was shouting from the lobby, which broke her prayer and opened her eyes. Her mother stood, shaking as she yelled. Across from her stood Phoebe’s father, also dressed like she’d never seen him. He wore a wool shirt, unbuttoned down the front to show his hairless chest. There was a pair of sandals on his feet.
A man stood beside her father. He was handsome, maybe even beautiful, with sandy blonde hair. His mouth was arched in a frown and his brow wrinkled. He was dressed like my father: a lavender polo shirt, khaki shorts, and sandals.
Phoebe studied him, unsure why, but filled with the desire to compress all these tiny details that made this man into her memory. It was as she studied him that she noticed he was holding her father’s hand.
Her mother came back to the car and sat in the driver’s seat, then lit a cigarette.
“Your father will just be a minute.”
“Mom — “
Her eyes pierced through the rearview mirror and landed in the back seat.
“Dad’s gay, isn’t he?”
She pulled a cigarette from her carton, glancing back ahead.
“Where did you learn that word?”
“I don’t know,” Phoebe said.
“Of course not.” Her mother lit the cigarette, then tossed the lighter on the passenger seat. “Why would you ask such a silly question?”