Emanuel lets me keep his deck of tarot cards under my bed. He got it for the pictures, but he says I’m the only one who really knows how to read them.Every morning, first thing, I shuffle the deck, draw out a card, and tell him what his day is going to be like while I’m at school. Sometimes I tell him what the card really means, according to the deck instructions. But most days, I make it up, weaving into his fortune all the things I know he won’t do if I don’t tell him to, disguised as some kind of spiritual guidance that makes it sound like he’ll find nirvana if he follows along. Today, as soon as I draw a card and flip it over, I know it’s going to be a shakedown day, so I call the absentee line and make my voice low and slow like his when he has to speak to anyone with any degree of authority.
Emanuel has never been very good at getting things done in the way you’d expect, though when he was working, everyone said he was the best detailer Figuero Auto Palace ever hired—slow as molasses, yet a fine eye for a curlicue, a real master with the airbrush. He has an eye for a curlicue, alright, but not everyone who notices beautiful things can actually make them appear in their own front room. Everything in our house looks off, somehow, because he’s touched it, trying to turn it into something elegant, like in a fancy decorator magazine, until he realizes midway that he doesn’t have the tools or the knowhow or the materials, and it really does cost big money to fix things, and anyway, this house is too tiny, too old, too one-story for a spiral staircase and a solarium, and he gives up. He passes it off by saying he has an eclectic style. I’m pretty sure that’s not the word the wide-eyed social worker who started showing up at our house every few months after my grandmother died would use, but you can’t take a kid away from his father just because there are chopped up satin Goodwill dresses hanging from the curtain rods, dead pine branches stapled to the kitchen ceiling, and a metal pole circled by ascending fruit crates standing next to the TV. I put a few plants on the crates and wound little white Christmas lights up the pole, so now it looks a little less like a firehouse and an apple truck collided in our front room. One time I came home to find that he had tried to hot-glue bricks to a wall in the kitchen. There’s still a half-wall with bricks piled against it in there, the rest of the ruined plaster all covered with spackle in a kind of a makeshift stucco pattern, sponged with rust-coloured stain—just like ancient terracotta, he says—and sometimes when the 4:55 freight train goes by, a brick falls down off the half-wall. He picks it up and lovingly places it back on the pile. Our own little ruined Rome, right in our kitchen, he says. There isn’t anything I can do to make it look good, and I don’t want to hurt his feelings, so I leave it alone.
Before my grandmother died, our house was a cozy little four-room bungalow, somewhat slouchy on the outside, but well-kept on the inside, with ironed and starched curtains, sparkling white walls, carpets that smelled faintly of the castile soap she used on everything, a bay window she kept so crystal-clean that the sun poured through the front room straight into the kitchen, the leather-bound 1967 Encyclopedia Americana volumes on the hallway bookshelf gleaming, not a speck of dust in sight, the gold-lettered titles practically jumping off their spines in that sunny glow, and even the knickknacks and fixtures and doorknobs everywhere just as shiny as you please. I keep trying to make it look like it did back then, but the longer she’s been gone and the more ideas Emanuel gets, the more things fall apart. Sometimes I get pretty close, after I’ve taken the better part of a weekend to scrub the house down, sprawled out on my belly with a book on the newly-clean braided rug in the front room, facing into the clear bay window, away from the failed-staircase plant tower and the kitchen’s brick pile and the pine branches. But if Emanuel decides he’s going fishing, meaning he’s going to dumpster-dive and scan sidewalk trash for stuff to bring back home and turn into his latest big idea, I have to leave the house in its dingy state and go with him, cleaning up enough to keep Social Services happy, but never enough to stop the downward slump toward dumpy old house. I can’t trust Emanuel to come home from these fishing trips with less than half the landfill, especially when he’s in a state, all quivery and full of big plans.
And Emanuel’s got nowhere but here to unleash his big plans. The accident at his old job made sure that he wasn’t going to get to practice his eye for the masterpiece on people’s smashed-up cars anymore. Mr. Figuero settled out of court, so Emanuel got out with a permanent disability check and a back that looks like a web of white lace neatly superglued to his real skin. His clothes cover it up, but you can tell it still hurts him, the taut way he bends and walks like a jumpy, tightly-strung science-lab skeleton. On those days when he’s all riled up and ready to change the world, or at least turn the house upside down in an effort to make it something it’s not, it’s almost like he’s on fire again, his skin all prickly and painful to live in, overcome by a panicky instinct to do something—anything—to put the fire in his head out.
My grandmother used to say Emanuel always had big ideas, even when he was little. She would tell anybody who would listen that Emanuel could have gone to the state university and become a big name artist with a gallery showing every year. And every time she said it, she’d look at me with a sad little smile set into her wrinkly cheeks, and then back at Emanuel with that same sad smile, as if to say, well, here we are now, Emanuel, and there’s nothing for it but to keep on making the supper and starching the curtains and dusting the furniture and watering the plants and going to church and taking care of your boy. I was too little to remember much about the day Emanuel brought me home, but I do remember that’s the first time I met my grandmother, and the only time I ever saw her cry.
On these shakedown days, I don’t really mind not being at school. I get pretty good grades because I read fast and remember things well, so the teachers don’t push me, mostly because they know I’m alone now with Emanuel, and who wouldn’t be a little bit absent some days anyway in that poor kid’s shoes, and isn’t it a shame about the accident, and his grandma gone, too, it’s amazing he still does his homework. They don’t even make me talk in school anymore, which is a good thing, because I hate having to stand up in front of people, knowing full well they think I’m weird, that I don’t even dress like a real boy half the time, and they all know I’m poor besides.
It didn’t start out that way in school, when the being poor was easily concealed, all of us in our rubber boots lined with sandwich-bread bags to keep our feet dry, with our oversized snowsuits that all looked the same, and our peanutbutter and cheese sandwiches in our rusty lunchboxes, and our t-shirts equally ragged because we all climbed trees and hung from monkey bars and got dirty and lost marbles and cussed each other out and piled back into the school somewhat ready to do what was in front of us, with not much of a notion of who was good at anything and who was bad, who was poor and who was rich, who was smart and who was kind of dumb. But that all changed once we got past elementary school. There’s a big difference between the fade you pay big bucks for off the rack and the fade you get in the dollar-a-pound pile at the Congo church sale, between reading the books teachers assign you and reading because you can’t stand to be anywhere but inside a book, and everyone knows it. Try to pretend you don’t, and you’ll get put in your place.
So after the accident, the principal decided that I’d be bullied if the teachers paid me too much mind, since I kind of stood out already, and they just stopped asking me to participate in class. I have a case manager who brings me sandwiches and writes me hall passes to go cool my heels, and a special dispensation that lets me write my reports instead of having to talk about them. I don’t think anyone even remembers my name anymore. The teachers and my case manager all call me “Dear” as if I needed extreme care to keep my head together, and the other kids don’t call me anything at all to my face. They used to call me “Faggot” and “Pimp-Boy” when I’d come to school in my snow boots, sporting one of my grandmother’s beloved polyester sateen blouses because it felt nice, over my Superman t-shirt that used to be a pajama shirt, with a somewhat ratty rabbit-fur patchwork coat I loved beyond reason draped over my shoulders like a cape, but the accident put a stop to that. Now, I’m just “that kid whose dad got burned,” and I only wear that get-up on shakedown days, when none of the other kids can see me, and anyway, Emanuel tells me on the days that he can really look at me, straight on, that I look beautiful to him.
This morning, Emanuel is up before me, already dressed in his best “going fishing” clothes, his beat-up leather jacket hanging at the ready on the edge of a kitchen chair, him pacing from the kitchen to the front room and back, waiting for the coffee to hiss and whine its last drops into the pot, making lists, tossing couch pillows to look for change, scanning the front rooms of the house, wide-eyed and twitchy, as if he were a designer on a TV show with only five minutes to create an entire interior decorating plan. Morning, Emanuel, I say. I call him Emanuel because my grandmother did, and when I say Emanuel, he looks up and stops, if only for a few seconds, as if he is waiting for her to tell him what to do. I don’t remember ever calling him Dad, a fact the social worker writes down on her notepad every single time she visits, as if me calling him by his name is somehow a sign that things between us are disintegrating beyond repair. In fact, saying his name keeps him close to me, stops him from veering off course and not coming back. He doesn’t call me by my name, either. He calls me Baby, because that’s what I am, he says. Talk about freaking out the social worker. No one calls their son Baby, but Emanuel says it like he’s my mother, my father, and everyone in the world who could possibly care about me all wrapped up into one, and it reminds him that I’m his kid. The last time he saw my mother, he came home with me in his arms and that was that, I was his Baby, and there was nothing to be done about it but come home to his own mother and raise me and call me Baby.
Emanuel is already riding the guilt train at full speed this morning, with his lists of stuff to find, stuff to buy, ways in which he is going to make things up to me and be a real dad, starting with going into town and buying me some clothes at a real store, like the consignment store downtown or Gordy’s Levis store, and then he is going to the hardware store to buy paint to make the walls in this place really pop, and then he is going to the Goodwill because there are still some good deals there and you can get cool stuff that no one knows came from the Goodwill and maybe we can even find you a Gameboy, that’s what the kids are playing with now, right, Baby, and have you seen the disability check or did I cash it, and we can even go to the grocery store and fill the fridge and make a big dinner with brownies for dessert and you can read to me if you want, Baby. He runs his hands through his hair like he wants to pull it right off his head.
Emanuel, I say, don’t you want to see today’s card first? I show him the Hierophant, and his face brightens. See, Baby, I told you, you can get anything you want today, you’re gonna be my guide to all the good stuff. I tell him, yes, Emanuel, I’m your guide, I’ll be your navigator through the world of the spirit today, so sit down and drink your coffee, and hand over those lists. Emanuel rolls his eyes, perches on the edge of his chair and looks like he’s going to split his skin, but he hands over the lists. I go to the fridge and open it, even though I know what I’m going to see because we’ve been eating hardboiled eggs and peanutbutter on spoons for the past three days. I don’t want to make him feel bad, but I’m hungry, so I say, listen up, Emanuel, the spirit world says fill your belly before you fill your house. His disability check doesn’t come until Monday, and we have about ten bucks left, which I have in my pocket. I tell him, Emanuel, let’s get a box of donuts for the road and go window-shopping. The Hierophant’s only a lucky card if we stay grounded and keep our eyes open, I say, but you never know what we might find. Emanuel looks chastened, but still jumpy and somewhat gleeful, like he’s going to finally get what he wants today. Right, Baby, if anyone can find the good stuff, it’s you, he says. He breathes out a huge puff of air like he’s already lifted all he can carry this morning, and there’s still another hundred and twenty pounds to move, but he’s ready to roll. There has to be something on his list that he can acquire, something that he can finally make happen, or he’s going to come apart at the seams.
The Hierophant, according to religious tradition, is a kind of a priest who connects the earthly experience to the heavenly for his followers, but in tarot card readings, he’s a not-so-gentle smack upside the head, letting you know that you’ll probably be okay, whatever it is you’re asking the cards to tell you to do, but you better not buck the system while you’re at it or you’re screwed. Whenever I pull that card, it’s a shakedown day, a day where Emanuel realizes that he has to open his eyes and see what’s really in front of him. Sometimes the shakedown day happens when he’s in a funk, in the middle of a week or two not of being able to get out of bed, and I have to pry him out of the house, set him down in the passenger seat of my grandmother’s old Dodge Dart, strap him in, and drive him around, avoiding all the typical places where a cop might be trying to fill his weekly quota of tickets, because I’m old enough to get my license but it costs an arm and a leg to take Driver’s Ed, so I’m still not street-legal. I take the back roads to the ocean, and he sleeps along the way. I park and wake him, a funky-looking imprint of the naugahyde piping decorating the side of his cheek where he fell asleep against the seat, and haul him out to the rocks, set him down to watch the sun glint off the waves, and I talk about how all the huge boulders got there and what they’re made of, and how they’re millions of years old and isn’t that amazing that here we are sitting on them when they used to be way under the earth’s crust, and I make the seagulls say stupid things about why didn’t we bring them Fritos, and Emanuel cracks a tiny smile and then I know I’ve done my guide job for the day. I bring him back home, give him coffee and a peanutbutter sandwich and a cut-up apple, he eats it like it’s the best thing he ever tasted, and I read to him from the Encyclopedia Americana, all the names of the Birds of Paradise, describing their colors to him as if they bring news from the world that not everything is crap, that there are beautiful creatures out there dressed in feathers and fluff that will knock his socks off, and he listens as if this is all brand new to him, even though he’s heard me do this a hundred times or more, and then he really smiles.
Other times, the shakedown day happens when he’s been at it with the hot glue gun and the stapler and the big plans to bring home half the dump and transform this place into a palace again, determined to turn over a new leaf and be the good dad who invites his son’s nonexistent friends over, telling the neighbors all about the house-painting business he’s going to start, trying to shoot the breeze with the guys at Gerry’s about building a new deck for the old bungalow, freshen the old girl up a bit, all the while oblivious to the fact that people are staring at him with a mix of revulsion and pity, not because they’re interested in what he’s saying, but because they can hardly believe their eyes, this wild skeleton-man with his shoulders poking out of his leather jacket, his salt and pepper hair sticking up in the back because I did a crappy job cutting it, his hands flying as he talks, his eyes darting everywhere, and me standing there in my snow boots and my rabbit-fur coat, my Superman logo peeking out the open neck of my silky sateen blouse that reminds me of my grandmother getting things done without a second thought and makes me feel rich even though I know it’s just cheap polyester, standing there just as cool as a cucumber, as if this is all normal, and I wonder how the other hierophants do it, how they translate “doing the right thing” for people who flail and twitch and grasp at everything, need the world to open up for them so frantically right that minute they can’t stop themselves from spiraling out of control along the way.
Emanuel is getting progressively twitchier, so we finish our coffee, grab our coats, and head out to the Dart, pile inside, and I turn the key. Nothing. I’m going to have to pull out the gas can and walk down to the BP station to get her going again on Monday after school, but right now, we’re on empty, so I tell Emanuel, looks like we’re walking, at least it’s nice out today. You look like you could use a walk anyway, Baby, he says, which makes me wonder how this day is going to go, if he’s already worrying about me and whatever it is that I need that he’s not giving me. I can practically see the twister of guilt, panic, and need circling above his head, like in those cartoons where the angel and the devil are sitting on opposite shoulders, but in Emanuel’s case, it’s like they’re fighting with each other so fast and furious all you can see is the whirlwind around them. My stomach feels like it’s imploding, so we head over to Gerry’s for that box of donuts I promised him. I get Emanuel a banana, too, for the potassium, not that it makes a big difference, but I figure a sugar crash is only going to make him feel more like he has to tell me all afternoon what a bad father he is. I need him to be okay for the next few days so he can cash the check and I can feed us before he lands himself in bed, and I don’t want to talk about what I need because I know it will tip him right over the edge. I hate to watch the slide, knowing full well I can’t yank him out of it until he crashes to the bottom. I make Emanuel wait outside so he doesn’t start chatting up Rory out back about the new deck we’re not going to build, and when I come outside, he’s jumping up and down like he’s on an invisible pogo stick, grinning wildly at me as I hand him a powdery donut and the banana. Baby, you’re the best kid ever, he says with his mouth full of doughnut, powder settling into the corners of his mouth, jump-walking next to me as we cross the street and head for downtown.
We look into the window of Gordy’s Levis shop, and Gordy looks back out at us as if to say, what the hell is that kid doing out of school, so we decide we don’t want to bother with his attitude, and we can’t afford anything in there anymore anyway. Even when Emanuel is as high as a kite on good dad fumes, he can’t stand Gordy, who insists on calling a pair of pants a “pant,” and tries to dress me in clothes I hate. Emanuel once got into a fight with Gordy when I was about seven or eight, because I tried on a shirt that was in the girls’ section and Gordy wouldn’t let him buy it for me. He shouted at Gordy, told him he wouldn’t know a beautiful kid if it smacked him in the head, we were ushered out of the store, and we haven’t been back since. We hit the travel shop instead, flipping through all the guides to islands with palm trees and parasol drinks and impossibly blue seas, where everyone wears a sarong and no one looks like they’ve ever had a bad day in their life. We try on all of the sunglasses, and I tell Emanuel he looks pretty swanky in almost all of them, even the dorky white Wayfarers, until the shop owner comes out from behind his book and asks us if he can help us with something, and I tell him we’ll come back, we just have to go get our money from the bank, and out we go, trying not to laugh until the door closes behind us, Emanuel still looking like he has donut stuck in the corners of his mouth. Geez, Emanuel, I say, wipe your mouth, and he can’t stop laughing, puts an arm around my shoulders, and we keep walking, passing the bookstore because being in there without money is like being a starving man standing in a butcher shop, and head for the consignment store, where we know that even if we’re the weirdest thing the shop owner has ever seen, she’s not going to tell us so because she’s too nice and knows a tough time when she sees it.
The consignment store is my favorite shop in all of downtown, not just because the owner calls everyone Honey, but because she masks her horror at Emanuel’s jumpiness so well, and she has never called the truant officer in the entire time we’ve been coming to her store. When Emanuel is on a tear, he looks like he’s on drugs, he’s so skittery, and everyone tries to avoid looking at him, turning to me instead, first with that oh you poor kid look, and then they spend the rest of the time we’re in their store trying to figure out if I’m a boy or a girl. I cut Emanuel’s hair, though not very well, but I pretty much don’t do anything to mine unless it starts to get in my way, so I have what could be kindly referred to as a mop. Pair that with the fact that I’m wearing a Superman shirt and snow boots, along with rabbit fur and sateen, and I’m a walking, talking gender mystery, especially when I head for the rack with the furs and the satin prom dresses. Emanuel comes over to the rack with me and touches the furs, letting out a gasp at how soft they are. How much, Baby, he asks, and I say, too much, Emanuel, eight hundred dollars. Whoa, he says, you’re going to have to get yourself a good job when you grow up. I tell him I’m going to have two or three fur coats someday, and I’ll let him borrow one if he wants. Then I pull a pale blue satin ball gown off the rack. Look at this one, Emanuel, I say, and hold it up to myself in the mirror. It’s beautiful, isn’t it? I say, and Emanuel says, yep, you would look beautiful in that, Baby, and he’s right, I would. I’m sorry I don’t have the money for it, Baby, he says, and I tell him it’s okay, Emanuel, but look at how the satin shines, feel how soft that is, and he touches the fabric. You can practically see the whirlwind above his head slow down. He stares at the dress, whispers to himself, beautiful, and I have to turn him around and guide him out the door.
We head down to the river with our donuts and our heads full of wanting furs and satin dresses, Emanuel looking all hunchy and distressed, and we walk onto the mud flats to look for treasure. This river is fresh water up above the dam, but below the dam, it’s tidal water, and the mud flats are exposed at low tide, revealing a lumpy mass of old demolished brick and algae-covered rocks. A couple hundred years ago, people used to dump their trash into the river, and eighteenth century trash is a lot more beautiful than the crap people throw out today, so we find treasures every time we come down here. Fragments of pottery and china, tiny bubbly glass bottles and apothecary jars, and the occasional silver spoon or fork all hide between the rocks, covered with a thin layer of river slime. Once I found a working penknife, and Emanuel found a tiny china doll body without its legs and arms. It’s hard to spot the good stuff underneath the mud, but if you’re patient, you never come away empty-handed.
I keep watch on Emanuel. He looks so gutted, every time he knows he can’t give me something I want, and he’s the only person I know who doesn’t laugh at me for wanting it. I used to worry that if I ever left the house for good, Emanuel would never survive by himself, but there are times I think I won’t survive if I don’t have him around to act like I’m the most normal kid he’s ever met. We spend hours searching through the mud, until the rising tide of the river starts to lap at our feet, and Emanuel finds a pretty good-sized fragment of blue willow china, my favorite pattern, along with a piece of pottery with a blue-gray salt glaze on it, the handle of a jug. He’s still thinking about the blue satin dress, and his lists, and the house, and what he hasn’t done today, and he keeps slipping on the rocks, jumping and staring and frantically searching the slime for something he can find for me that isn’t broken. I go over to him, slide my arm through his, say, Emanuel, look, and hand him the tiny blue bottle I’ve found. He stops jumping, and turns it over in his hand, amazed at how small it is. It has a crack down the side of it, but it gleams in the sun, the little bubbles in the neck of the bottle clustered together like miniature stars. I tell him, Emanuel, your guide says it’s probably time to go home. I’ll make you a peanutbutter and donut sandwich. He glances up at me, looks out across the water at the seagulls congregating on the opposite shore, shakes his head like he’s trying to clear out a storm, and looks back at me, cracks a tiny smile. We bring home our treasures in our pockets, shiny and blue, broken and beautiful as they are.
Winner of the 2014 Howard Frank Mosher Short Fiction Prize, judged by Robin Black.