I kept cockroaches when I was little—thirteen or so—in a terrarium with a twig propped up on a river rock like a teeter-totter and a layer of woodchips on the bottom. My father hated them, told me they’d breed in the house and infest our walls, and we’d eventually find them in the cabinets and the plumbing and the laundry, crawling and shitting on the plates and dishes. He said no one wanted to be around the cockroach girl.
I still keep two at a time in the same terrarium and burn them when they die in an old mason jar my father used as an ashtray until he got sick and forgot he was a smoker. When I visit my father, I spoon a heap of cockroach dust into my pocket.
He sits in his room at a nursing home in a wheelchair that barely moves, just stares at square hedges and curated rock piles. I don’t know if he likes it here.
Every three weeks it’s the same. I come in, spin him around so he’s facing me, sit down on a yellowed vinyl chair and say, “Hey, Dad.”
He smiles, but it’s wan, unrecognizing. He holds the thread for a few seconds, then it’s gone. There’s a brief wrinkle in the corners of his eyes like he’s trying to read a sign that’s too far away and after that, nothing.
“You remember the time Michelle and I found that baby skunk down the driveway? We brought it inside and promised that we’d feed it, take care of it. I couldn’t have been more than eight.”
His doctors told us—me and Mom and my sister Michelle—it’s good to talk to him about the past, things he might remember if it weren’t for his disease.
“Yes,” he says, but he doesn’t mean it. He says the same thing when I tell him lies. Maybe I shouldn’t test him like that. It’s cruel.
“We asked you if it was a boy or a girl and you remember you said sexing a stunk is like playing Russian Roulette with a round in all six chambers?”
He smiles, looks pleasant, the way someone would look during a nice dream or sitting on the porch watching a far-away thunderstorm roll across the horizon turning the sky purple then black with flashes of horizontal lightning like temporary scars.
A while ago I set him up a little cart. A couple small battery-run motors with plastic cogs that spin each other and a screwdriver to remove the gears. I roll it in front of him. He looks at me, then at the cart and picks up the screwdriver and begins to disassemble one of the motors, taking the pieces off without thinking. His hands act on instinct, doing the things he’s always done. The things he’s always loved before and beyond anything else.
I pick the motor out of his hand and the faculty fades from his mind. It’s like unplugging an old black and white television, watching the picture shrink and blink out of existence.
I place the motor back down on the tray and he resumes his work. He puts the motor back together and flips the switch. It whirrs. He sets it down, then looks up at me and says, “Michelle?”
“Do you still have that old car?”
“The…” he trails off, struggling to keep this one in his mind. He clamps his mouth shut over empty gums. It’s the same look he gave me when I came bolting out of the house after Michelle killed my roaches and I found them on their backs, stiff legs pointing to the sky. I pitched a socket at her, missed, and cracked Dad in the forehead. He gave me that look—the one he’s got now—then went back to the car without a word.
“The ’74. The Nova,” he says.
The car he got Michelle for a graduation present. The one they spent two summers fixing up. The one they bonded over. The one I wasn’t allowed to touch.
“I do, yeah. Wouldn’t dream of getting rid of it.”
Michelle sold it years ago, right after he got sick. She doesn’t visit.
“Ever replace the carb?”
“Good girl.” He looks down at the tray, the motors, and it’s all new again. He unscrews one of the gears, examines it, and sets it down.
“I have to get going, Dad.”
I dust my fingers in the ashes in my pocket like fine flour and grab his hand, pressing the powder into his skin until our combined moisture turns the cremated remains to paste.
“It’s Michelle, Dad. Your daughter. I love you,” I say.
And sometimes he loves me too.
Spencer Litman is an emerging writer in Phoenix where he lives with his wife and two smaller versions of his wife (children). He is a fiction editor with Superstition Review and has work forthcoming in jmww, Ellipsis Zine, Pithead Chapel, Riggwelter, and X-R-A-Y Literary Magazine. Find him on Twitter @LitmanSpencer.