KING

by: Rebeka Singer

I sat on a lawn chair dragging a broken stick along the stone patio floor. Dad stood at the grill. He bowed his head and squinted at the sundrenched backyard. The foliage was a tunnel of green. It was nothing like the beach house where we’d spent our summers before Dad stopped making money.

I turned toward the screen porch door. A box of fireworks sat on the floor just inside. We used to set them off by the beach every Fourth of July. Sometimes we did it other days, too, just for fun. Despite Mom’s concerns about upsetting our suburban neighbors, Dad insisted on not giving up the tradition.

At the beach house, we had thrown Fourth of July parties every year. Mom did all the cooking; Dad set up badminton and croquet. Our cousins, grandparents, and friends would come, and we would eat in the early afternoon until sundown when Dad set off his fireworks display over the saltwater lake. It had only been two years but I was thirteen now, and all my memories seemed foreign, as if they existed in other lands. They were sweet, salty memories of the dark Atlantic waves, crushed seashells underfoot, and the indigo-violet hydrangeas.

I could hear the faint clinking of pots and pans inside the house swirl with the rustling of leaves in the canopy. Those hazy sounds seemed to rouse Dad. He cocked his head up and shook it dumbly, waking from a daydream.

“You know something Lily, I could live like a king in Africa.”

Dad was a big talker. Ever since the money slowed, he would go on rants about greater opportunities in foreign lands. I wondered if he had always been that way—a frontiersman, looking to the distant horizon to strike gold. He had traveled a lot before Mom. He told stories about China, Rome, and South Africa. But he loved the American desert best, said it was the purest place on Earth.

Mom appeared in the doorway bearing yet another tray of food. It was only the three of us this year; we would have leftovers for days. She stared, glassy-eyed, at Dad. I looked at him, too, but he didn’t seem to notice her.

“I gotta be smart,” he said. “I have a million dollars. Why should I have to live in a country where I have to slave just to live with my million dollars?”

I didn’t know the details but I knew enough: there was no million dollars. We lived off the money from the sale of the beach house. I guess Dad felt our reserve running dry.

“I should move to a country where I can live like a king with my million dollars. You guys think like… like Neanderthals!”

“Tom, what on Earth are you talking about?” Mom looked tired. I knew it was best to just let him talk.

“Who needs this stuff?”

“Gosh, Tom! Why do you always do this?”

“I need Deerfield like a hole in the head. I came here to go to school. Everything else has been a struggle, a fight. The city officials, then the IRS. When you want a permit to do business you have to fight for it. Everything: fight, fight, fight!”

I knew he had been trying to go into business again, little investments here and there and, in the end, nowhere. But how hard could he possibly have been trying when he spent most of his time locked away in the basement, smoking, dreaming of another life, in another place?

Mom placed the tray down on a stool. “Tom, relax! This is ridiculous talk. Do you want Lily to think you want to leave her—us?”

“Mom,” I whispered, “please stop.”

“Yeah? And what have you done, Kate?”

Barely any of the mothers worked in our neighborhood; Mom was no different. You wanted it that way, Dad. But I didn’t say a word.

“I would have done things differently.” She was using her angry voice; it didn’t sound strong like usual, but strained.

“Yeah, you’re a wonderful Monday morning quarterback.” He folded his hands and turned to me. I felt his stare.

“I’ve tried here and nothing,” he said. “I have to go now, seek a new land of milk and honey.”

Smoke billowed from the closed grill.

“Then go, Tom.” Mom flung a dismissive hand in his direction, and turned to go back inside the house. I wanted to go inside, too.

“That’s what you want—because you’re expressing discontent with the current situation. Aren’t you? Aren’t you?” But she was gone.

Dad and I were alone. He opened the grill and moved the blackened chicken thighs and hot dogs onto a tray with shiny tongs. He walked over to me and sat down beside me on another lawn chair. We didn’t look at one another but stared somewhere into the sky.

“When I came here, I was just a little older than you,” he said. “I owed five thousand dollars, and I didn’t have a job—not a car, house, or dime. I didn’t know anyone. I’m not afraid to do it again.” His breath waned. He leaned forward, clutched his kneecaps. “You got to be willing to jump out of an airplane with a backpack full of silkworms. That’s an optimist.”

My cheeks puffed—swollen and sore—trying to suppress the sting rising inside. “An optimist.”

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