Kevin Stewart

Katherine with a K

He was some withered, shrunken version of himself, grottoed in his recliner. A plastic two-liter Smirnoff—a third-full, an empty LSU beer mug, and the TV remote sat on the table to his left, his good side. The window unit rattled from across the room, and silverware clanked in the kitchen. His eyes grew when he finally noticed Katherine standing there. She’d been there several moments. Her tongue sucked against the roof of her mouth, and her lungs expanded and hardened in place. Opening his mouth, strings of spittle stretching between his lips, he slurred what must’ve been her name. She said, “Holy shit, Daddy,” and started to cry, wishing she hadn’t said that. He reached for the power controller on the chair arm and uprighted the recliner, Katherine helping him to his feet. They held each other, and she felt only bones inside a jumpsuit of skin now several sizes too large. “Jesus, Daddy,” she said.

Her mother walked in, drying her hands with a dishtowel, which she tossed on the couch. “You should’ve seen him a month ago,” she said. “I have to admit, he’s improved.” Unable to imagine him any worse, Katherine helped him back into the recliner and then hugged her mother. The window unit clicked off. “Welcome back,” her mother said. “It’s been a long time coming.” Ignoring her mother’s insinuation, Katherine released her and dragged a dining-room chair to her father’s side. “You have to listen closely,” her mother said, “and be patient when he talks.” She took her purse from the coffee table, fished her keys out. “If that fat bastard and his cranky buddy come for him, don’t let them take him to Chimes. He’s drinking too much as it is.”

Custus and Wylie, Katherine knew, two regulars at Chimes, her father’s bar and her old one. She sat in the chair and took her father’s good hand; the right one palsied into a pasta ladle.

“And watch him,” her mother said. “Whenever he wants attention or gets in trouble, he pees.”

“Pees?” Katherine said. “He can control it?”

“Doctor says no, but his timing is impeccable.” Katherine laughed, but stopped when her mother said, “Luke called.”

Katherine raccoon-pawed that fact around in her mind for a few moments and then shrugged.

“That boy loved you.”

“Still does,” she said louder than she meant to. When she moved to Atlanta, Luke kept calling, never stopping until her father’d had the stroke. Only then did he stop. She glanced at her mother, at the floor.

“And I can’t do anything about that.”

“You could’ve left alone that rugby-playing busboy―”

“Bar-back.” Her mother said nothing. Katherine stared at the marlin in the wood grain on the floor, an image she’d first discerned when she was maybe three or four while being scolded for being a tomboy or not practicing her pirouettes enough. She could feel her mother train her gaze on her for several moments longer and then shift it onto Finney.

“Be good to her, Finney,” his ex-wife said. “She’s about all you have left.”

That remark stamping an instant hieroglyph on her mind, Katherine listened to her mother close the car door and drive away before she raised her eyes, meeting Finney’s—cracked, raw eggs with blue yolks and fixed on her. “You need anything?” He shook his head and seemed to be smiling, though his mouth could do little more than gape. She understood him asking how Atlanta was and told him fine. Her dance classes were going well; her students were talented and hard working. She patiently listened to him talk about a Braves game he’d been to. Something about Hank Aaron. With his good hand, which shook like DTs, he sloshed more vodka into his mug and shakily drank. Katherine wondered why he even would, why a stroke wouldn’t be sufficiently mind-altering. Before he finished the drink, he dozed off, so she had to wake him, lead him to his room, and help him to bed