The phone rings late but I pick up, remembering how its only 7 o clock there. Tell me about your movie he’ll say, just asking about my days. He was always like that – making things seem bigger than they really were, like everything had to be art. There is a danger there – what fell short was lost for his attention. There were times we fit the picture, four wide-eyed kids cast in a golden hour glow. And other times, when sibling quarrels, piled on colds and bills to pay were dim and overwhelming, ultimately proving to be too much for him to bear. Still, beauty was drawn to him and he sought it out in return with that old black camera always hanging from his shoulder on a worn out strap. Our dad, a legend in our starry eyes back then. My mother still speaks of him in myths. Even then, she’d tell me how they would stay up all night listening to Bob Dylan and reading each other poems. It was like they shared a secret language, she said. I always wanted to impress him. For my whole eleventh year my favorite song was Sara.
Looking back, there was a wildness to him then, in those years that faded into California and left us precariously behind. It held him tight in it’s grasp, the sadness and the selfishness of it, the helplessness of it. But I was only thirteen, and I didn’t believe in anything that would explain him leaving. Not an illness or a breakdown that could justify it. Teenage years that passed with miles only reaching further on in time and distance, while we all grew tired of his promises on coming back. I was nearly nineteen when I went out there to see him. He was living in a trailer park outside of Sacramento. I knew he’d found the romance in it, those faded trailers all in a row, their metal sides washed out in the dusty shades of sunset. The neighbors who had character, and stories to tell. We walked around the city and it was gray and empty. It was the end of November and it didn’t feel like California. All the unsaid words hung heavily above us and I was naive, in thinking I would hear them. Thinking suddenly, they’d fall down on us and wash away our halted conversation, my unanswered questions, all the years in between. Heading back that evening I realized that seeing me, no longer a child, was all he could manage. I let it be then, there in the middle of the meadow in my memory of it that stretched behind the trailer park and out to the highway. And I stayed, for Thanksgiving. Snapshot of an oddly perfect family holiday, where we talked about his life there and looked around for records. There was so much we shared in common, and he always had fun.
It’s still not often that I hear from my father, who drifts in and out by way of telephone with spaces in between of months long spans at least. But I always answer when he calls from California. I tell him all about my daughters and my days. I show my girls the pictures of my childhood, the four of us posed obediently, with a serious stare. There’s something about those photos taken with his camera. Printed, picked up, held, again and again. The pause to stop and focus, the slight turn of the lens. How there in that moment, we were golden to him then. Sometimes I think he knew there would come a remarkable distance. That he took so many pictures so we would always have them, with that same black camera sliding down the dashboard, wherever we’d go. We used to sit in the idling car while he picked up his prints, listening to the radio as he thumbed through the glossy 4×6’s, setting aside the ones he liked best and tossing the rest back for us to look through. We’d hold the negatives up to the light, trying to figure out who was who in the blotted blown out images changing colors with the passing scenery. I’ve been finding them lately, a trail of lacy ribbons in sepia and black and white. These delicate relics, scattered pieces of his tribute to her and us.