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MARK L. KEATS | Conversation with Past, Present, and Future

My dead father stands at the base of my bed, bowler hat in hand. His mouth moves, but I can’t hear any words. My eyes seem to alert him, and he shakes his head a little, tilts it, as if he were trying to free drops of water. Then he begins again.

Bad dream?

I sit up and nod.

Were you falling?

I shake my head.

I’m always falling, he says. It seems like fun, but then you realize you’re merely floating. You wonder, will I ever hit the ground, feel the sensation of solidity? Know—perhaps finally—that there is some kind of end to it all?

I nod, wondering if he’s describing death or the state he’s in.

You know, he says, I’ve been able to watch my life. It’s strange. It’s like I’m in some kind of rotating tunnel. With each cycle, I’m reintroduced to a year of my life. No detail too small. I’ll tell you this now. You will be surprised by how much you forget. Really surprised.

I nod, close my eyes hard, gently pinch the tip of my nose, and exhale. I’m suddenly very thirsty, but I don’t want to be rude, even if my father is dead. I open my eyes. I don’t know the etiquette of the dead, what might or might not be considered rude.

“Dad,” I finally say.

He stops talking. Yes, he says.

“I need some water.”

Water, he repeats, as if he’s forgotten what it is. Sure, why not. Never touch the stuff anymore. No need to, he says and smiles. In some ways, it’s easier being dead.

He follows me into the kitchen, his feet barely touching the ground. I drink two glasses full without stopping.

Better slow down.

I nod.

Feel better, he asks.

I fill the glass again, nod at him. “Yes,” I manage to get out and drink again.

We move to the living room, and I suspect he’s not going to let me go back to bed, back to a momentary oblivion. I hadn’t seen or heard from him in decades—assumed my mother’s story of him chasing his dreams in California and not living with regret must have been true. Why else would he leave his wife and child? And then he showed up at my door a few nights ago, looking like a dapper young salesman, ready to make a deal.

I turn on the lamp by the chair and, like before, the light sort of goes through him. If I look closely, that gray pallor returns. It’s as if the light distorts the reception of his existence. Then I realize my father only visits me at night. I’ve never seen him during the day, though I wonder now if it’s that I just couldn't see him.

I remember when you arrived at the airport, he says. You couldn’t have been more than four, maybe five. You remember?

I shake my head, yawn a bit. The clock reads almost two-thirty in the morning.

Oh, probably not, he says and laughs a little.

“That was a long time ago.”

Guess it’s hard to remember that age. Anyway, you didn’t speak for a long time after we got you. Your mom was worried you were broken.

“Broken?” I say.

She thought maybe we’d adopted a mute child. She wasn’t sure she could deal with that. Then, she’d hug you and you wouldn’t hug her back. Until we met you that day, the anticipation, well, that was such an energizing sensation. Preparing for your arrival. Telling family members, friends. Everyone had so many questions and suggestions. And we were all so excited. But when it happened, it’s as if your mother froze, realized maybe she’d made a mistake. We were older than most who adopted. You were so tiny and frail. Malnourished. Orphaned by a forgotten civil war from what I remember. I don’t know if she ever told you but she wasn’t sure if she could be your mother.

“Mistake,” I repeat.

I get up and go back into the kitchen and fill the empty glass again. I fill the kettle with water and set it on the burner. I turn, hear the click-click-clicking of the ignition before that familiar flame appears. I put my hand near it and feel the slightest sensation of warmth.

Look, he says. I know you don’t want to hear all that. But, for what it’s worth, your mom and me, we did our best. It was momentary—the uncertainty of raising you.

I nod, unsure what to say with this new information, knowing only one parent raised me and now sometimes doesn’t even remember me. I don’t know what my father wants from me, why he’s come to visit and talk, offer me this history. I still can’t tell if he’s the ghost of the past, present, or future. Perhaps he’s an amalgamation of all three. Maybe this is his purgatory, but then I think, what would it be for me?

“Dad,” I say.

Yes, he says.

“What do you want from me?”

He looks at me. I can’t tell his emotional response to my question. Perhaps he’s mulling it over. Perhaps he’s always known.

I’m not sure, he says. After all that falling, I kind of woke up and wasn’t sure where I was. Then I kind of felt this pull and before I knew it I was at your front door. That door was like a film: and I saw you, your life. All those years I was absent. That’s when I realized the magnitude of what leaving had done to you and your mother.

“I’m sorry,” I say. “I didn’t mean to—”

You’re not the one who needs to apologize, he says. That’s life, isn’t it? I could apologize to your mother and you. But it wouldn’t change things. He takes a step forward and, again, I instinctively take a step back. Look, he says. I’m sorry I was a lousy father. I’m sorry I left. Do you feel better?

I shake my head.

Didn’t make me feel better either, he says.

“That was a long time ago.”

I know, he says. I know. But I think that’s it. It’s not about seeking forgiveness. That would be too easy. He looks around. All of this, he says, is just a kind of focus for me. A funnel. I can’t help but look at you and realize how awful I was to you and your mother.

“Is it hell, then?” I ask.

He shakes his head. No, he says. I thought that initially. But, no, he says again. It’s, I think, something far worse.

“What do you mean?” I ask and turn the stove off.

Well, he says, and scratches his head some. There’s no fire, no demons poking you, no sensation of pain. At least with pain, there’s a moment of respite, even if it’s momentary. The Catholics are going to be upset by this, he says and laughs. All those Hail Marys wasted. This—it’s like you’re watching a movie of your life, all the good, the bad, and the ugly. He laughs again a little. God, I loved that movie. You remember that one?

I shake my head.

I was probably in California by then. Anyway, he says. You can’t redo it or not think about it. It’s like you’re trapped in the vacuum of your life. Even if you did forget it, you relive it in the tunnel. And all the emotion, well, it just hits you, then spreads outward. Nothing too small or insignificant. And the tunnel just keeps on turning and showing, reminding. There’s no moment of respite. You’re forced to confront it, meditate on it—realize all the dominoes, in a sense, have already fallen. There’s no future to rectify.

“So,” I say, “Is this it? Is there a way out?”

He smiles, and I think he’s actually a good-looking man. I imagine this is the face my mother fell in love with. But it makes me a little sad. We share no DNA, no blood. Only in our collective nods do we come close to breaching the invisible line of father and son, despite never meeting, never intersecting in a way that binds us together by our blood.

I’m not sure, he says. I’m really not sure.

We both stand in the immediacy of that revelation, perhaps at some threshold that neither one of us can understand.


Mark L. Keats was adopted from Korea and raised in Maryland. He has an MFA from the University of Maryland and a PhD in Creative Writing from Texas Tech University. He has received fellowships from Kundiman and The Martha's Vineyard Institute of Creative Writing. His work is forthcoming in the museum of americana and Portland Review.

To stay up-to-date with Mark, be sure to follow him on Twitter @NotThatKeats

Photograph by Jr Korpa


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