The Satisfaction of Longing: Stories by Victoria Melekian
  Stories by Victoria Melekian
  1  How to Spell Egypt
 Mercy Smells Like Lemons
3  Looking for Stars
4  Fallen Oranges
5  Help
6  Ashes
7  Far From Home
  About the Author  |  |  Summer 2022 Fiction Issue


My sister collected Dad’s ashes from the mortuary and put them in a box, a gold metal thing she found at a flea market, set it on a table in the corner of her living room on a white lace doily surrounded by four red flickering Our Lady candles keeping vigil. Becca was in her hardcore Catholic phase. For a while she had Virgin Mary sightings. She’d call and I’d rush over, but I never saw anything but sprinkles of blue-green cleanser in the kitchen sink, a slice of pizza on a paper plate. The curlicue on the bathroom mirror looked like it said get milk written vertically. I didn’t say so, just nodded and said, “Yeah, I can sort of see it.” The last time I was there, the box was gone. The candles, too. A big pile of unopened mail was on top of the lace doily. I didn’t ask her about Dad.

Now he’s here on my front porch, no note or explanation, just the gold box on the welcome mat next to the morning paper and two folded beach chairs, all the dust and leaves and dirty grit blown in with last night’s Santa Ana winds. I pick up the box and set it on the kitchen counter with the vitamins and blue salt and pepper shakers, the biodegradable white napkins stuffed into a wicker duck.

Dad died last year. My brothers and I wanted to scatter his ashes at sea, but my sister said no, he’d be eaten by sharks or scaly eels with snapping teeth, a recess snack for schools of shiny orange fish. Becca went on and on as she always does. And we gave in as we always do.

She’s the oldest and remembers more than the rest of us about Mom and Dad together before Mom left. She’s our family Bible. Not the kind with crumbling yellowed newspaper clippings and a page in front with births, deaths, marriages written in spidery black handwriting, but more of a family lore expert. Sometimes I think she makes it up, but I’ll never know.

I sip my coffee, read the paper, tell Dad the Dow is up, Dodgers lost, things I think he might be interested in. It’s a little weird sitting here on Monday morning talking to Dad, but the wind is howling again and it feels cozy inside.

I never had much time alone with him. We were the kids whose mother went crazy and disappeared, leaving Dad to raise us on his own. I grew up in a state of benign neglect, youngest of four, loved but unnoticed, sort of figuring things out as I went along. Like the old kitchen screen door with its tired whoosh, clack. You had two seconds after the whoosh before it banged you, hard, on the back of your heel. Growing up was like that, learning the timing, the rhythms of things, then staying out of the way.

Driving to the office, I call both brothers and leave messages saying I’ve got Dad and let’s talk about what to do, please call me back, please, knowing they won’t, even with the extra please. Evan seldom returns calls and Andy’s always busy and often out of town. Becca agrees to meet for coffee at lunchtime, but when we do, she doesn’t want to talk about Dad. I watch her lick the whipped cream off a green plastic spoon, blow across the steaming extra-large decaf mint mocha she’s ordered. She’s putting on weight which usually means she’s recently broken up with someone. Becca’s got a bookcase full of titles like Women Who Love Men Who Hate Them, lots of books with yellow highlighting and penciled exclamation points shouting in the margins. I ask her about Dad and she shakes her head, just says, “Do whatever you want. I can’t handle it anymore.” Doesn’t say what she can’t handle. Or why.

Thing is, with Mom gone crazy, I wonder if I will, too. I worry about lost keys and the long search for sunglasses that are already on my head. Becca’s afraid of balloons and soapy water—she doesn’t like the crinkly sound of bubbles. Andy can’t sleep without the tv on, and Evan separates the food on his plate—nothing can touch. I manage things in pairs: purse/briefcase, keys/wallet, hairbrush/lipstick. I figure if I can keep track of things, I’m okay.

I don’t remember how it started with Mom, just the stuff at the end: yelling at the power lines in the backyard, hot dogs on Cheerios for dinner, Mom wandering at night and the police bringing her home. Dad would open the screen door and pull her into the curve of his arm and hold her tight as he said good night to the officers, the four of us standing behind him in the hall, the police car’s red light flickering across the wall, our faces.

I was nine when she disappeared. There were flyers and posters and neighborhood searches, her picture on the local news. When the police gave up, Dad hired a private detective who found nothing. Sometimes I wonder if she’s living in an institution, waiting to be claimed. Just sitting there in a straight-backed wooden chair mechanically stringing orange beads or gluing dried pasta onto a tin can, her kids a faint twang in her ear, that’s why she shakes her head.

Without Mom, life was easier, and I felt guilty for thinking so. I wanted a real mom, the kind who worried about grades and made sure you were wearing your seat belt. Sometimes back then I wished she’d died instead of running off. When Susie DiBartolo’s mom died of bone cancer, the whole school went to the funeral, and afterwards, the girls were extra nice to her, gave her their desserts at lunchtime and invited Susie over to play. Our friends weren’t allowed to come to our house because Dad was at work and there was no supervision. We were the kids whose mom went crazy, a stigma that clung to us through St. Euphrasia Elementary and into St. Anthony’s College Prep.

Dad left the porch light on, but seldom mentioned her. Once, though, just before I left for college, I found him in his bedroom, looking at her picture. It was small, black and white, scallop edged. It was a young Mom, a photo I’d never seen.

“Pretty,” I said.

He startled. I don’t think he heard me walk in.

“Yeah, she was.” Was. I wondered if he thought of her as dead.

“What was she like?” I asked. “You know, before.”

I followed his stare out the window. There was nothing much there. A palm tree, some straggling vines, pink and purple bougainvillea climbing up and over the fence from the neighbor’s yard. Dad was never a let’s talk kind of guy, so I was surprised he answered. “I think maybe she was always Looney Tunes.” He shook his head, traced her face with his finger then pushed the photo back into his wallet and smiled at me. “That was part of her charm,” he said.

I go to work, yoga, shop for groceries, come home and toss my keys on the table next to Dad. I read him the sports scores in the mornings, tell him good night when I shuffle off to bed.

Midweek I talk to Andy’s wife who says he’ll be back Saturday afternoon. She asks me if it isn’t kind of creepy, you know, having the ashes here. “Not really,” I say. I don’t tell her I kind of like Dad’s company, that it’s been hard living here alone without James.

I’m staying in a furnished condo temporarily, just somewhere to sleep and hang up clothes and put stuff. Except it’s not even my stuff. It’s all borrowed or donated. Our things, mine and James’s, all burned in a house fire that’s under investigation. We came home from dinner and everything was gone. Nothing left but the concrete foundation, an ice cream scoop, and the green and red Christmas tree stand. It feels like we never existed. We’re renting this place while we sort through insurance papers and plans for rebuilding, but James hasn’t moved in. He’s living in his camper on our old driveway. Says he wants to supervise the construction, but it’s three months now and nothing’s begun. Sometimes I drive by during the night and he’s not there. When I ask what’s going on he says he’s thinking things through. Like what, I want to scream. Twenty-three years we’ve been married. James is my plane’s-going-down-last-call person. Lately I’m wondering if he’d even answer the phone.

Thursday night I move Dad to the coffee table. The power goes out in the middle of the movie we’re watching. I find some candles and pour another glass of wine, sit and listen to the wind wail. I tell Dad about the fire, how lonely I am, that I miss my piano, Grandma’s flower pictures, my husband. I empty the last of the wine into the glass, spill some on my hand and lick it off. I lean down and whisper to Dad, “I think maybe James started the fire.” It feels good to say out loud what I’ve been afraid to think. I fall asleep on the couch listening to the branches of a eucalyptus tree scrape against the window.

Becca calls in the morning, but I don’t answer. My head hurts and I’m running late. She tries twice more, but I’m busy with meetings all day. Her messages sound like a flock of baby birds. It’s late when I get home and all I want to do is fall into bed, get some sleep.

When she shows up Saturday, I’m still in pajamas, eating cereal. The newspaper is spread over the couch, the tv news on mute. She looks at the box on the coffee table.

“What are you doing?” she asks.

“We’re having a slow morning.”

“You just said ‘we.’”

“No, I didn’t.”

“Yes, you did, Lizzie.”

“That’s ridiculous. I’m sitting here by myself. Why would I say ‘we’?”

Her eyes get big and her eyebrows look like upside down v’s. She says, “Oh, my God, it’s happening to you, too.”


“Nothing. I’ll see you later.”

When I come home from the grocery store, Dad is gone. A note on the table from Becca saying she’s got him, we’re meeting Evan and Andy tomorrow at the beach to scatter the ashes. She’ll pick me up at eight.

I sit in the kitchen listening to the hum of the refrigerator. I hear the train, the long one lugging all the freight. The one that makes the walls vibrate.

Outside the wind is blowing again. It lifts the leaves, the patio chairs, takes whatever’s not tied down.


  © Victoria Melekian, 2022

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