(Trigger Warning: Story contains topics of death, abandonment, and drug use, as well as some cuss words.)
I dug my fingers into the dirt, its moist crumble mocking my focus and distracting me from the task at hand.
My pops had his hands cupped, a tiny white seed resting in his palms, still and serene. I told him he didn’t have to hold it, but he wanted to help me out, so here he sat, his beige khakis painted with mud.
It was nearly triple digits outside, but his brown cheeks didn’t reveal how warm it was outside. The only indicator was the tiny pools of sweat forming beneath his arms.
“You don't have to hold it with two hands. It’s smaller than a pea.”
He shook his head. If he thought it best, he’d stand on his head with his arms spread out, his stubborn personality refusing to admit there was ever an easier way to do anything. “That’s exactly why I’m usin’ both hands, it’s so damn small it’d be the death of me if I dropped the damn thing.”
I sighed, but let it go and kept digging. We were placing it in front of our window, so we could see it from the family room and the kitchen.
The dirt got colder as I dug and formed a growing pile next to me the further down I went. I glanced at my phone, re-reading the instructions I found online on how far down to plant a tree.
“I think that’s good. What d’you think Pops?”
“Give it a little more room.”
“TreeGenius.com says this should be fine.”
“It’s up to you baby." He paused for dramatic effect. "It's just sixty years I've got on ya, that's all. I lived through the second world war, but I’m sure some damn hippie website created by-”
“I’ll keep digging.”
I dug for two more minutes before Pops gave the okay. I let him release the small seed into the hole, but before I piled the dirt back on I kissed my finger and touched the seed.
“Grow for us Momma,” I whispered, then buried her all over again.
That summer I walked outside every day. Watching - waiting - watering. But nothing happened. Three months later, not even a sprout.
Pops pretended like he didn’t care. “I told you to dig deeper,” he snorted anytime he saw me looking, then he’d shake his head and murmur something about how ignorant people are nowadays.
But I saw his stretch every time he sat on the couch, just enough to glance out the window. I noticed when he sat at the dinner table, looking just past me, squinting his eyes in the way he does when he has feelings he doesn’t want to share.
Today was the first day of winter, and I'd made my momma's famous pasta. I made it weekly now, enough that I didn’t need to read the instructions anymore, but I still looked at the yellow note card Momma used for all her recipes, her messy handwriting crossing off stuff and adding ingredients.
My older sister Tanya and I were always her test subjects. Sometimes we pretended to be food critics, ripping notebook paper out of our binders and writing notes.
Tanya’s were always polite, even if Momma used salt instead of sugar, or made a solid dish into a liquid. “Good try, I like how unique it was.”
But I took my job seriously. You wouldn’t lie to a professional chef, I told Tanya, and if Momma wants to sell her food she’s gonna need constructive feedback.
Momma didn’t like that too much. After I told her that her Cape Malay Curry tasted like it had been to war and back, she ended food critiques.
“You either like my food or you like goin’ hungry. You choose baby,” she’d said, slathering my hair with gel and pulling it every which way, braiding it for picture day.
Pops chomped each bite, his chewing nearly louder than his wobbly chair. He sat in it every day, despite the two empty seats at the table. Neither of which wobbled.
I played with my pasta, watching the noodles slide through my plastic fork, over and over again. I was hungry, but I couldn’t eat, instead listening to the distant howl of the wind, and the not-so-distant creak of Pops’ chair.
Back and forth, back and forth, back and forth.
He chewed louder. Then he rocked more, until I couldn’t take it.
“Move over Pops!” I blurted out.
Pops raised his brow. His mouth twisted as he finished his bite, ready to scold me for raising my voice.
“What’d you say, little girl?”
“Your chair, Pops. It wobbles every time you breathe. There are two perfectly good chairs right next to you. Just move over, please.”
“One of those seats is your momma’s,” he said, leaning forward so his navy jacket nearly dipped into his food. “And the other is your sisters. This seat has been good enough for me up till now and it’ll be good enough for me until I’m sittin’ underground.”
His words tear at me, opening a wound that never closed in the first place. Raw and aching, I take my words to war. “Momma’s dead. Tanya’s forgotten our names by now. She left, she didn’t want our family, and she's not coming back. So move fucking chairs.”
Pops paused. His head dipped, lowering as if in prayer. He mumbled and grunted, then raised his head, eyes distant. He jammed his fork into his pasta, twirling the silver cutlery.
It'd been three years since Tanya got into Stanford and decided to leave the South Side. Two years and eleven months since she decided to leave us. Not a text, much less a call.
Tanya was always too good for our family. A born genius.
“You’re our angel baby,” Momma'd told her, kissing her face and rubbing her back. I liked to watch, from the chair across the couch, imagining I was Tanya. Second born, first choice.
Momma’d nearly died havin’ her. Forty-eight hours in labor, two weeks in the hospital, a lifetime of debt. It was before Pops came back into our lives, before he got clean. After Dad left. For the first year of her life, I truly thought Momma’d drop her off at the fire station and leave her there. She always acted like she hated her.
But as soon as Tanya started talkin’, she was a star. Fluent before all her classmates, skippin’ two grades and graduating just three years after me.
I should’ve stopped with Pops. Should’ve let him sulk and sit in the chair till it broke. He was grieving too, I knew. But it wasn’t fair. He could’ve known Momma for thirty-nine years. He chose to know her for fifteen. But he acted like he had every right.
“Move chairs or get out.”
Pops chuckled, a shallow empty sound that shook the pained silence.
“You think I’m kiddin’, Pops? She left the house to me, it’s mine. So get out of the creaky-ass chair or get out of my house.”
“She didn’t leave shit to you. Your momma left it to Tanya, and then she signed it over to you.” His words were messy and polarized and they cut through whatever I was trying to do.
“You think 'cause your momma died your grown? You think you can talk to me like you're my momma?” He spat, slamming his fist on the cedar, causing the table to shake with courage. His lips quivered, mine were in a tight line.
“In case you don’t remember,” I implored, tapping my foot to the floor and scratching my thigh, “You left. Then you came back, then you left again. So apparently that chair hasn’t always been good enough for you Pops.”
My curls tickled my neck, and I scratched the spot it teased, digging my nails into my skin as Pops opened his mouth then closed it. His fork was still now, his hands dry and lonely.
We sat there, waiting for the air to reconcile our words. Hoping they would fizzle to extinction and we could forget them right then and there. When it didn’t Pops got up and went outside. It was dark now, but the new season was fresh and warmth still protected the weather.
He knelt near our window, near the non-existent tree. Near Momma.
Pops made no sounds, but aching tears pushed down his cheeks, carving a pained path of regret.
I dropped down next to him, slipping my hand into his and staring at the ground. The moon lit the grass, illuminating the spot where our tree should've been.
“Drugs took me from your momma.” His breath curled around him - around us. He elongated his words, fighting the shake from his voice.
“And leavin’ her was the greatest mistake I ever made. Not seein’ her graduate, watchin’ her step-daddy walk her down the aisle. It hurt me, Alana.” His fight couldn’t hold any longer, and he choked out my name.
“I know Pops. I’m sorry, I didn’t-”
“No baby, don’t you dare apologize to me. You ain’t got nothin' to be sorry for. I know you don’t think I deserve to miss her. I struggle with that privilege every day. I miss your momma, I miss your sister, I miss you.”
“I’m still here Pops,” I whispered, tightening my grasp on his hand. “I’m still here. You still have me.”
“But you won’t be here forever. I won’t let ya.”
“Maybe,” I countered, “but if I step a foot outside of Chicago, you’ll be right beside me. I promise you Pops, I won’t leave you.”
He smiled a knowing smile. It curved with despondency. “Perhaps. But if you don’t, I’ma still be rootin’ for you baby girl. I’ma watch you from the South Side, watchin' you become who you were meant to be.”
I didn’t know what to say. I couldn’t leave him, he was all I had left. I missed Momma, and I missed Tanya. In a twisted way, I missed Tanya more, cause she chose to leave when Momma had no choice.
I abandoned my words and leaned into him. Taking in the cigarette pine of his jacket, melting into his comforting hold.
We stayed like that for a while, letting our minds interweave and our agony untangle.
We stayed like that through the fall and winter and spring, until we planted another tree, one for Momma and one for Tanya.
A seed of grief and a seed of hope. A wish to let go and calling to come back.
That summer, Momma’s tree grew into a slim stick, with tiny leaves and skinny branches. Tanya’s was resistant, and Pops said it was buried too deep, that’s all.
“Hey Pops,” I whispered. It was the 22nd of September, the last day of summer. We were on separate sides of the couch, Pops watchin’ the news while I analyzed what the anchors wore. “You can see the top of Momma’s tree from the window.”
He glanced over. “Would’a grown faster if you’da listened to me.”
“It’s 2022 Pops, I can’t take advice from the dark ages anymore.”
He grunted and mumbled an incoherent insult.
A knock sounded at the door and I groaned, sliding off the couch and slinking across the room.
I swung the door open, then sucked in my breath. Chocolate curls, white jeans, and a pressed pink jacket stood on the porch.
I didn't believe it, and my shock had me at a loss.
“Your tree,” I breathed.
Her brows furrowed. “What?”
I shook my head, brushing off my words and making sure she was truly there. “You’re here.”
“Yea,” she pushed out her hands, holding a small plant in a tiny vase. “I'm here.”
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I enjoyed your story Arianna. I’m guess it was Tanya came back at the end. The dialogue between father and daughter was crisp and real.
Thank you so much! Yes it was Tanya at the end, I’m seeing now I should’ve made that more clear! Your comment is very appreciated!
Cool, story, I love your language. Especial when it comes to the dialogue. I would have like if you made it clear it was Tanya
Thank you! I tried to subtly show it was Tanya, but I’m seeing people would’ve liked if I said her name in the story. Thank you for the feedback it’s very appreciated!
I like this a lot. Really good dialogue. I am happy it has a happy ending but I would like to know for sure it was Tanya who came in the end. Thanks for writing this
Thank you!! I’m seeing people think I should’ve made it clear it was Tanya, I agree! Thank you for the feedback, very appreciated!