The last time I saw my father, he told me the bearded lady was worth a penny if I ever got a chance to see the circus. I wondered if he was offering me an outing—father-son bonding—if he’d pull a pair of tickets from his pocket, swoop them from behind my ear, magic. Instead, he reached for the perpetual itch across his fleshy chest sprouting tufts of hair that turned golden with sun. His Hawaiian shirt unbuttoned to the third hole as usual.
His lazy eye made me wiggle. I tried to find the right angle, hoping it’d catch me in its vision, but it always swam away.
Once he brought me fishing. I threw rocks into the creek while he fell asleep in the chair. When he woke, he cursed the sunburn mark across his arm where I’d propped the pole. The hook dangling from its wire, inches above his chin, so if he lifted and opened, I could reel him in.
When my teacher asks the class to write a poem describing our families, I squirm like a minnow beneath that creek’s murky water. The other kids, they write about their parents like they’re superheroes. They have names like momma and daddy, grammy and pops. They help so many people—they give stitches in the hospital, fix the streets, take away the guns, they answer phones, drive trucks to Iowa, get people out of jail; they clean and cook and carry my classmates on their shoulders, on their backs, bring them to so many places, like the zoo, the circus. Their faces take up half the page, and the teacher says remember to leave room for the writing. I want one of these super-heroes for myself.
In my poem, my father wears a crown, a velvet purple cloak; he is king of a small faraway village where we live in the highest altitude, looking down from our peak onto all the tiny people and never getting out of breath. My mother is beautiful and still alive. I, of course, catch golden fish every day and buy plump fresh fruit from the market, where the bearded lady greets me with fat open arms and a hug that smells like bread. My teacher praises my poem, compliments the details, suggests I add more metaphors, something to bring it to life.
When my father died, I told my son his grandfather’s real name was Frederick, but everyone called him Ralph. My son waist-high beside me at my father’s grave, my hand light upon his head, he thought this was funny and he laughed. And that felt like something. Like I’d won a prize at a carnival, some oversized inflatable I’d carry with me the rest of the day, set on my shoulders so it could look down from above, light enough to blow away, large enough to look like something grand, like I’d won it all. Like I’d always had it all.