When the clock strikes seven, my father buys me a mocktail. It’s my third of the night. “Go easy on that one,” he says, smacking my arm and winking.

I take a sip and tip the glass toward the ceiling. “Look, Dad: a slug,” I say, pointing at the impression my lipstick has left on the rim.

“A red slug,” my father says, taking the glass from me and pretending to study it.

“A slug that has trailed itself through blood,” I say.

My father laughs and smacks my arm again, closer to the wrist this time. We are at the annual Father-Daughter Ball, inside the domed palladium, inside the Charging Arms Hotel—a swanky venue, outfitted in streamers and balloons and heart-shaped Christmas lights for tonight.

Someone has also taken the time to depetal a bayou’s worth of orchids. The petals lie scattered across our utensils. “What’s the entrée—orchid steak?” I say. I pick up a petal and set it on my salad plate.

“Orchid fillet,” says my father.

“Orchid omelette!”

We leave our seats and dance to a waltz, a Taylor Swift, a Little Richard. With each step and pivot, my dress gets sucked into the space between my father’s thighs. He has wide-set hips, knees that are far apart, so there’s ample room for the tulle to balloon inside.

“They should shut the windows. There’s a cross-current,” my father says, stumbling over my dress.

“They should shut the doors,” I say.

“Anyway, there’s a cross-current,” he says, looking at his legs, his face tortured. “I feel like I’m giving birth.” He stops mid-dance, with his legs parted. “I can’t,” he says and throws his arms up. He squats a little. “This is awful.”

He squeezes his legs together but it’s as good as trying to squeeze shut a nutcracker.

“You’re built in this way for a reason,” I say gently. “It’s OK.”

My father flushes and looks around the room. This leg business is not happening to any of the other fathers.

I look around as well. “It’s OK,” I say again. I take my father by the elbow and lead him to the terrace door.

• • •

“If I could only push them harder,” my father says, sitting down on the grass, in the garden of the Charging Arms Hotel, under the cypress and next to the gazebo, pushing his legs together.

I kneel beside him and set down the mocktail I picked up on the way. I place my hands on his kneecaps and help push. “Nothing,” I say, grunting for his sake. “Nothing.”

“Push,” he says. “Push them!”

“It’s the angle at which they grow out of your pelvis, Dad. You can’t change who you are,” I say.

My father lets go of his knees. He looks down, into the murky bottom of my mocktail. He picks it up, sadly, and tilts it toward the ground. I let him do this for a minute. “Alcohol won’t solve a thing,” I finally say. I give his knuckles a little slap.

My father lifts his face and smiles, remembering, I’m sure, just how our night began—jokes about the mocktail, the ha-ha of its mockness. Slugs. Orchids. Salad forks.

“You’re growing up, aren’t you?” he says.

“I am,” I say.

“Soon you won’t be my little girl.”

“Don’t, Daddy,” I say.

“I guess that’s the point of the Father-Daughter Ball,” he says, giving the terrace of the Charging Arms Hotel a wistful look. “That we fathers make memories which will forever live in our daughters’ minds. That’s the point of it all.”

As if on cue, the back door of the hotel slides open and more father-daughters file out. Maybe there’s a break in the music because suddenly the father-daughters have nothing better to do but point their hands at the moon and laugh. Some just sit on the terrace benches and talk. One father—a muscular redhead—starts climbing the trellis but gives up once its grid threatens to snap. He hops back onto the tiled floor and waves his hand like it was nothing. But the other fathers don’t see it that way. They crowd around him, slapping his back and congratulating. They group closer and tighter, knitting themselves into a single father-mound. Then, just as quickly as it came to be, the mound crumbles. Fathers spill away from all sides but the spill serves as a call to arms, it seems, because more fathers emerge from the back door of the hotel, and some fathers come from around the front of the building, running on the grass.

Fathers without daughters run down the stairs of the terrace and down the length of the lawn, together, some loosening their ties as they run. Closer to us now, in the garden, to the left of the gazebo, fathers with loosened ties drop onto their hands and knees. Some fathers drop onto the mulch, some quickly climb one level higher, onto the shoulders and backs of other fathers.

Yet another level forms, on the shoulders and backs of fathers who already stand on the shoulders and backs of fathers. There are fewer and fewer fathers with every level so that the shape they’re promising to form will be peaked—the peaked, insolent face of the Father Rat King.

My father watches them, and when the King reaches four stories, he rises.

“Daddy?” I say. But he doesn’t answer, he only runs. My father runs to be a part of the rat that will forever impress in me the image of him as a victor, even as I grow old. He climbs fathers upon fathers, aiming for the top. I salute him with my mocktail, only he doesn’t see me, of course. He scales the other fathers, his legs forgotten, crushing his polished brown loafers into their shoulders and hands. The King grows stouter—it is a tower. It is now part of the evergreens and the owls.

Marta Balcewicz's stories, essays, and poems appear in Catapult, Tin House Online, AGNI Online, Pithead Chapel, Vol.1 Brooklyn, Tiny Crimes (Black Balloon, 2018) and elsewhere. She lives in Toronto and edits fiction for Minola Review. You can find her online at www.martabalcewicz.com and @MartaBalcewicz.

© 2018 Marta Balcewicz. Published by LITTLE FICTION | BIG TRUTHS, November 2018.

Images from The Noun Project (credits: b farias).


««« | MAIN | »»»


by Marta Balcewicz
Daddy Rat King