American Horror Story
My phone came alive next to me, lighting up the eaves of the raised ceiling above my head. Thank God. It had been a terrible idea to start watching American Horror Story at ten p.m., alone in my dark house. I hit pause on the remote, but the screen shot was particularly disturbing, so I hit play and pause once more, until the frozen image was one I could bear to look at for a while.
I slid my finger over my phone, and my brother’s voice came out at me.
“Hey, Justine?” he said, instead of his usual greeting of “Hey, Shithead,” which became “Poohead” after he and Sara had kids.
The line was quiet for a moment. Quiet was not in my brother’s character make-up, so the silence made me giggle nervously.
“What the hell, Kevin? You’re making me worried. You okay?”
“Ray was just here. And he’s on his way to your place.”
My breath caught. It was one of those movie moments when time stops existing, but then God hits the play button on life again to zap it all back into being.
Ray. Ray, as in my father, as in the man who’d disappeared five years ago without a trace but who had really disappeared a year before that when he became a shell full of nothing.
I cleared my throat. “Yeah. Yes. I mean, I’m here. So, he’s alive.”
“He’s alive and well. If you can call the way he lives well. So, he’s coming to your place.”
I live in Colorado Springs, Colorado. Kevin lives in St. Louis, Missouri. They are about thirteen hours away from each other by car, over a long, boring drive I know well from the many times I’ve made it since graduating from Wash U and moving out here for a job a year ago. I’d gone back five times since then, several to see if I could keep my boyfriend and me together, and later, to lick my wounds at Kevin’s house after our breakup.
“How in the world is a homeless man going to get here?”
“I don’t know,” Kevin said. I heard the kids screaming in the background, Sara pleading with them to get in the bathtub. “I don’t know how he even knew where we lived, but he just showed up on my doorstep, and he had your address written down. Just walked in without a word. Sat on the couch. He came around six and left about five minutes ago. I think he said six words the whole time he was here.”
Kev broke off and made a strange sound, something between a laugh and a sob. He inhaled sharply and continued, “So I don’t know how long he’ll stay. At your place. I need to go help Sara with the kids. I’ll email you.”
My phone lit up against my cheek, signaling Kevin had hung up. He never liked crying in front of me. Well, in front of anyone. I stared at the image on my TV screen: an actress, her mouth arched open, looked like she was about to scream. The image struck me as funny for some reason, so I laughed out loud, and it sounded wrong in the empty room.
Ray Matson. I hadn’t let myself think about him, really think about him, in so long. But it was Saturday night. I had nothing to do tomorrow. He wouldn’t be here at least until then. I could stand a long cry. I could stand it.
He had probably been your average dad, but as I looked back on him over the years through rose-colored glasses at something gone, his imperfections became perfect. In my memories, he was a wonderful father, before. He worked as a biochemist, regular nine to five. He played with us after work. He’d toss us around like sacks of flour, bounce us off the bed, throw us high in the air, and Mom would squeal in fear while we squealed for more. He and Mom were happy. I mean, they fought sometimes, and sometimes he came home in a bad mood, but overall, he was just Ray, and he was always saying we were a team. The Matson Team.
When we were older, he was cool without trying too hard. He started cussing when he noticed that we’d started cussing. Mom was shocked, but he said, "No use pretending now, Mel." We could talk to him about anything, and he dispensed advice he knew we wouldn’t take.
When I was sixteen and Kevin eighteen, he went on a business trip. He left us a funny pencil drawing on the island in the kitchen of himself eating breakfast, the caption “Yum!” underneath his silly face full of scrambled eggs, his caterpillar eyebrows exaggerated, raised, his dimples extra deep. He didn’t check in with Mom at all that day or night. She called the hotel, worried. When he didn’t answer the phone, she even called his boss, who said Ray had been quiet since lunch and had gone back to his room. She’d watched him walk in, she said. He was probably sleeping.
I can only imagine how little sleep Mom got that night. He didn’t call the next day either, but walked in the door that evening. Just drove up, came in, unpacked his things, peed, and lay on his bed, staring at the ceiling. He wouldn’t look at us. We almost thought he could be messing with us, except it was too much. Dad would never play that sick of a joke.
Kev and I heard Mom crying that night, talking, but we never heard Dad respond. He did talk again, but only to communicate needs or get directions, like ordering food at a drive-thru. The next months were a blur of grieving and doctors’ appointments. It was like he died, but he didn’t.
It was a hellish year for all of us. Dad lost his job. He still bathed himself every day, like a robot; ate whatever Mom put in front of him, like a robot. He would take walks. He’d be gone for days; Mom would report him missing, and the cops would bring him home.
“My dad became a zombie,” I told my friends. When Harry Potter came out, one friend suggested, wide-eyed, that a Dementor had stolen my dad’s soul. We were sixteen, and Harry Potter seemed so real, and for a while I thought maybe it was true. I pictured him on the toilet in a restaurant bathroom stall while some black shadow sucked away everything that made Ray my dad.
Mom hired a private detective to find out if anything had happened to him on his business trip, but he’d gone to lunch alone that day, and no one knew where he’d gone. Doctors thought it was probably a traumatic brain injury to his frontal lobe. Mom tried to get guardianship of him; she was denied. He could still balance a checkbook and make decisions—he just didn’t care anymore. The authorities felt bad, but what could they do?
He disappeared for good one day. He didn’t even take anything except his ID and the clothes he was wearing. Just walked out and never came back. We got reports of him occasionally. He was homeless, wandering the country.
I did a bunch of research on traumatic brain injuries or TBI. I watched a special once on TV about a man who sounded just like my dad. He’d been a loving father of two, and then, as he was trying to put his suitcase into the overhead bin on a plane, it fell on his head in just the right way to injure his brain. And from that point on, he was a jerk. The wife was young and pretty and trying to hold their marriage together to honor the man in her memories, the man this guy had been. Footage showed him at a bar, watching sports with his buddies as he pounded beer. His friends gave worried interviews. The last interview was with the guy himself. “I know I should care about her,” he said about his wife, “I just don’t!” He laughed, forced, strange.
Sometimes I wonder about that woman. I think her kids are lucky it all happened when they were too little to know their dad. At least they didn’t have to deal with loving a case that used to hold their father. A warm body where he used to be that still walked and talked and breathed and looked just like him.
Turning off the TV, I lay down on the couch and pulled the afghan over me. I didn’t feel like walking up to bed.
It felt like only minutes later that the doorbell rang, but I rolled into a cold pile of drool when I sat up, so I must’ve been sleeping long and hard. The room was gray with slivers of sunlight shining through the tightly closed blinds. The doorbell rang again. I looked at my phone. It was past noon. I sighed. Sleeping had always been my favorite way of dealing with difficult things. Avoid them by napping.
My front lock is sticky, so I jiggled it for a moment before the door slid open. And there he was. Ray Matson. He looked like he’d stepped out of a forties era movie. His skin was gray. He wore a brown fedora and an old, brown, plaid suit. He looked at my face, nodded, and walked past me, disrupting the pattern of dust mites in the sunlit streams.
“You cannot just waltz into someone’s house uninvited.” I surprised myself. I sounded like Mom.
He looked confused for a second, then walked back out the door and onto the welcome mat.
“Justine, may I come in?”
I will not get emotional, I said in my mind. I will not let him know he hurts me. I will be just like him. I will be a robot.
I nodded, and he walked back through. He stood near the window, his back to me, and lines of sunshine crossed the plaid of his suit. It looked like a piece of artwork you’d see at a gallery. It was beautiful, a father’s back crisscrossed in light. He turned, shattering the picture. I looked at his steel gray eyes. They were emotionless. He looked all over the room, toward the stairs.
“I heard Melanie died,” he said.
I swallowed. “Yes.” Mom had died. Last year. She’d been happy though, with a new love and a job she loved. It was over quickly, and she’d had time to say her goodbyes. And, she’d been herself when she passed. It wasn’t that it wasn’t awful or that I didn’t miss her every day, but compared to how I’d lost the other parent, it had been almost good.
Ray was quiet. He didn’t seem unsure, just stood there like a statue.
“How’d you get here, Ray?”
“A truck driver brought me.”
There was too much silence, and I needed to fill it.
“Do you need some water? Or the bathroom?” I gestured toward the back of my house, where the kitchen and bathroom were next to each other. He walked that way and disappeared into the bathroom. I sank into the couch.
When he came out, he sat next to me, ramrod straight, looking at the blank TV screen.
“What do you want, Ray?”
His eyebrow shot up, more emotion than I expected.
“Ah, yes. Could I sleep here tonight? I would like to sleep here.”
“You came all the way to Colorado to sleep here?” When he didn’t answer, I looked around. I didn’t have any good reason to say no, except that I didn’t know him at all. He was a stranger. Should I let a stranger sleep in my house?
Ray stood, as if to leave, and the words that came out of my mouth surprised me again. “Okay, you can stay. If you want to. I have a guest bedroom. No one’s ever used it. I have to work, though, so you’ll—”
“Thank you.” He interrupted me, stood, and walked upstairs, a ratty briefcase I hadn’t noticed before in his hand. “I will go lie down.”
I don’t know how he knew which bedroom was the right one, but I heard him open and shut that door, and then nothing else. I wanted to call Kevin, but I didn’t know what to say. Instead, I got dressed and went for a run, let the November air burn my lungs, and wondered what it was like to be Ray. Did he know he wasn’t the same? Did he recognize who used to live in the body he was occupying? Did he ever miss himself?
Or, worse, maybe he felt things inside that he was unable to show because some neural pathway, a tiny bridge in his brain that was responsible for passing an emotion from the mind to the face, was broken. Maybe my dad was trapped in there.
When I got home, he still wasn’t up, so I showered, dressed, cleaned up. I kept looking toward the spare bedroom, thinking, “My father is in there,” and then hating myself for it. He wasn’t my father. Dad died when I was sixteen. He was just a phantom.
Ray still didn’t come out of the room by bedtime, and I had to work the next day, so I went to sleep without seeing him. In the morning, just as I was about to walk out the door, my coffee cup in my hand, he came into the kitchen. He stared at me for a moment and said, “You’re all grown up,” before making his way to the coffee pot. I was taken aback that he noticed anything about me. That he had any memories of me. I gulped some coffee, the heat coating my throat. I watched him as he made himself coffee the way he always had when I was growing up. In my kitchen, he added milk and a spoonful of brown sugar from the glass canister on the counter. He drank it quickly, as he always had, while standing at the sink, and then rinsed out the mug, laying it in the dish drainer next to the sink.
He turned and placed a piece of printer paper on the island in the kitchen, picked up his hat from where it had been resting on top of his briefcase, and put it on. “I’ll see myself out, Justine.” I swallowed hard and nodded, watched him walk down the length of the house, purposefully shutting the door behind him.
The paper on the island lay there. Looking at it was like driving past a terrible car accident. I didn’t want to look, but I had to. I moved forward, turned it over. It was a drawing of himself that he had made in pencil. His back, clad in a plaid suit, at my sink, in my house, his elbow out to the side. I knew what was in his unseen hand: a coffee cup full of coffee, milk, and brown sugar. It was a goodbye note. For the first time since I was sixteen, here was a reflection of my dad, a whisper of him that had come from deep within his own body.
I inhaled and caught my own reflection in the kitchen window. My mouth was arched, and I looked exactly like the actress whose face had been paused for so long on my TV screen last night, the one who I thought looked like she was about to scream in horror. But I was not about to scream. I was about to cry. What I felt inside was so vastly different from what I saw on my face.
A professional food writer who has lived in seven states, Shannon Cothran prefers New England and its clam chowder and ice cream to New Orleans and its gumbo and snow balls.