I’ve been sleeping six years when my daughter brings home Lenny. His pants sag off his hips and he doesn’t look me even in my closed eyes. He edges around the walls when he’s standing, sits on the couch with an arm slung over Mari’s shoulders. Lately Mari’s gone from calling me her big old bear of a dad or a thunderhead to saying I’m a tornado or a chainsaw, something ticked far up the rungs of violence. I don’t know what she means, exactly. She tells her mom her friend’s dad has a machine, a mask that pushes air down his throat and keeps him quiet. CPAP, Rhonda says, and Mari says, Yeah. I think he’d just quit breathing altogether, Rhonda says, God bless her. Lenny stands, goes to the kitchen and comes back after a minute with one of my age-old cans of beer. He cracks the top and everybody just kind of looks at their shoes.

Rhonda’s gone herself from clear liquor to brown over time, and I wonder what this means about her. I’ve got this one dream about floodwaters, I’m in a cave and I know what snowmelt means and how much dirt it carries, there’s no way they can lift my bulk to drag to higher ground, and sometimes while my wife sits curled at one end of her wicker settee, eyeing me and swirling whiskey around the ice cubes in her glass, I worry I hear rain beating overhead. She has been a saint, and their stories never end well. I worry instead what her liquor says of me, and I roll through the long days of sod and timber that make up my brain. When we were kids I told her I could actually drive better drunk, and she let me try to prove it a couple times up and down streets lined by houses darker, quieter than our own, places no one parked on the curb. You’re not fooling anybody, she finally said to me, and she says it again now: You’re not fooling anybody. I guess I’m not.

Lenny turns to Lester, and then Billy, and then Billy to a string of names Mari hardly bothers to say. She finally comes to an investment banker named Howard, and for all his three-piece suits and the occasional well-tucked polo he doesn’t look me in the eye either. Their children call me their big Chewie-wookie and think they’ll wake me with their secrets: Mommy has a hidden jar of money. There’s a bird that scratches at the bedroom window. The trees are watching nervously. Seasons change for colder still and Howard trades his family off and his way into much the cell I always imagined for Lenny. Mari is too broken for the irony. She comes home more often and I’m a bear again. She buries in my deepest breath. Rhonda takes on autumn, or she gives her spring away until her peaks dust white. She takes to ladies’ luncheons and weekend getaways, with a man names Everett finally builds the city of steel and stonework I think she always wanted. Everett stands clear-eyed and patient while Rhonda separates her things from me. She’s very gentle in her goodbye.

I don’t recognize myself even in my dream. I’m alone in our home. That dark water never finds me, but trees thicken with rain and I grow thin with rest. Out in the widest valleys forests separate to new hands. Voices that almost sound like mine ring their gospel in the heights. Across the deepest branch of my heart flutters a flock of tiny red birds. I know instantly they’re a family and will stop to speak to me if I only ask, and the sun halos them so perfectly I can call each by name. It will never be winter, they say. Or else it always will. Dusk bleeds them gray and soaks away all but the narrowest, nearest landscape and pinpricks of light overhead, each a beacon I won’t quite reach. I’m still warm. I almost wake.

Marvin Shackelford is author of the collections Endless Building (poems) and Tall Tales from the Ladies’ Auxiliary (stories, forthcoming). His work has, or soon will have, appeared in Kenyon Review, Wigleaf, Split Lip and elsewhere. He resides in Southern Middle Tennessee, earning a living in agriculture. Twitter: http://twitter.com/worderfarmer

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