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 before returning to finish his drink for him, the vodka going down as bitterly as a lie.Upstairs, she dropped her bags on a new bed with pipe-rail head and foot rails. Her old room was stuffier than downstairs, as usual, but now it was strange and antique, for some reason out of harmony with the framed photographs of her at every age, in ballerina tights or in costumes from various productions: Swan Lake, The Nutcracker, Grease, West Side Story. The largest and most gaudily-framed photograph was of her in her white shawl, dancing as Raymonda in a production that was actually “quite reverent” to Mariinsky Ballet, her father had been glad to see and point out. One of his proudest moments of her, but she couldn’t recall such praise about anything else she’d done. When she reached high school, she detested dancing until, in college, she found a way to dance and get back at him, though he never found out. She almost wished he had, tainting her dancing for him the way he’d tainted Doctor Zhivago for her. From childhood through middle school, she’d watched it with him many times, listening to him explain the historical significance of its scenes or railing against factual errors, as he perceived them. He’d always claimed that one particular scene—the one in which Dr. Zhivago drapes Lara’s head with her hood—is the most erotic in film. Even when she was too young to grasp the significance of his insights, she loved the passion in his voice as he talked, the intensity in his eyes as he watched. She wondered whether he could even think of such things now, or whether he even remembered the movie poster in his study as she now did.

Her sophomore year at University High, she’d needed a book for a paper on a Chekhov play. She opened the door to her father’s study and found him and a grad student both standing naked, the student wearing a scarf on her head, her father cinching it under her chin. The girl saw Katherine first and covered herself with her hands and arms. Before her father could turn around, Katherine tore out of the house and into a sopping wall of humidity.

Later, after she screamed at him until it was briefly out of her system, he begged Katherine not to tell her mother. He was shooting for chair of the Russian Department. A divorce wouldn’t look good to the committee, especially if it were a result of his affairs with his students. To this day, Katherine couldn’t name the reason she didn’t tell, but she felt as if she’d been the victim of a fraud, as if all relationships were frauds.

Now she sat on the edge of the new bed