Nana’s mother, Flora, heard the tapping as she changed into her nightgown. She knew it was him before she saw the pleading face in the window. Please speak to me, Flora, the dead man said, please speak to me.
Sometimes in dreams and sometimes as ghosts, the dead men in this family knock on front doors or bedroom windows, asking their wives and daughters to be let back in. Some of the fathers in this family supported heads that turned away from the women and children until they either dissolved or died. While other men in this family were born already dead.
These stories go back for centuries, fathers and brothers and husbands asking for forgiveness after dying too young or too mean from drink. And for a millennium, the women in this family forgave the ghost and sent him on his way to whatever waits in the after. (Except for me. Well, I forgave two ghosts and sent them away. And each came back from the dead.)
It was Patrick, Flora’s husband and Nana's father, tap-taping the window for forgiveness.
Patrick was not a mean drunk when he was alive, Nana told me. She said that she never heard her father raise his voice in her life. He was the only saddler in Derry, Northern Ireland, where she grew up, working and conditioning leather into saddles, shoes, messenger bags and belts. Exceptional. Until he got drunk.
One night, whiskey swimming in his belly, Patrick bet the saddler shop in a poker game with his brother. His eyes were half-mast. Everything changed after that. He died working the leather on the floor of his living room, his children grown and out of the house. His life’s work lost. The fluttering shuffle in the hands of his brother.
And so, he begged his wife Flora to forgive him in death like he’d done the night he’d come home drunk with the news. (She forbade playing cards after that. She said they were the work of the devil. Nana used to slap them out of my hands. Me mommy forbade it and so do I, she’d say. But later, when I began to read tarot, she’d come down to her table in the middle of the night. She’d ask me what the cards said about her dead husband and her first boyfriend, the man she still loved in the cellar of her heart. She’d boil tea and read my tea leaves. Something else she kept secret.)
Please forgive me, dead Patrick said to Flora at the window, Please forgive me, Flora.
Flora pulled the nightgown over her head, looked to her husband and said, Go to sleep now, Paddy. She blessed herself as the man dissolved, and Flora turned out the light.
Years and years later, Nana’s brother was sitting on her bed when she woke up in the middle of the night. She looked at the alarm clock but couldn’t read the numbers. The digits whirred into a blur. The mattress springs creaked, and she turned to him. Her brother’s shoulders shook with sobbing.
They won’t let me up there, he told her.
Nana’s brother was a mean drunk—threatened to drive his wife mad after his death. He promised he’d come back as a voice, and she would walk the streets talking to herself by the time he was through with her. The promise never came true, but his words clanged on the roof of his wife’s head for decades.
To Nana, this night, he appeared as a hunched over boy, begging his sister for help.
Deep down, you're a good man, Nana told her brother-ghost, if a tortured and invisible one. She kicked the blankets off her feet and leaned in. All the men in this family are cursed, she said. All of them afflicted with some evil disease they can’t help. All of them bastards.
She remembered her brother convincing their mother to forgive Nana when she ran away and married an American.
She remembered their mother finally opening the door and letting her new husband, my grandfather, pass the threshold. She remembered her brother’s shining eyes over her mother’s shoulder. It’s alright now, you see?
She remembered her brother’s own young bride when he also immigrated to America. Their little house. Their red-headed girl. She remembered how lovely and handsome her brother was before alcohol twisted him up.
So, Nana prayed with him because she remembered. The siblings held hands as Nana hushed the Lord’s Prayer. Nana’s backyard lit up like morning. A searing brightness cut her eyes and stung her nose.
Her brother zipped up with the light.
It’s perhaps easier to imagine all of us women without a father at all.
My mother was born out of Nana like a splitting cell.
Her father’s face never rotated towards her unless he was drunk.
His head swiveled on his neck, perpetually. At dinner he stayed silent and never ate, the trunk of his body sat facing forward, but his eyes and mouth backwards, turned toward the grinding clock. After he cracked a beer, his face would roll towards them. It blistered and splattered spit.
My mother hit her father once.
She’d found him kicking her brother’s ribs with his steel-toed boots. She grabbed the lacquered shillelagh Nana hung over the doorway and clubbed him over the head with it. How Irish of her, to crack her father with a souvenir from Nana’s hometown of Derry.
I sat in awe listening to my mother’s story. Nana’s house darkened and vacant. We’d carried her antique mirror through the rose garden. Our girl was dead and so were all the men. We carried her house out into the night, heaving boxes into our cars.
When we were done, Mom sat under the green arbor full of wisteria and told me. She said that the way her father’s arms stiffened, his hands cocked crooked as lightning bolts, blinked through her. Her body flooded and her father dropped. Her older brother, a curled ball, a small pebble on the red carpet, unclenched himself and looked up at his sister.
Nana stood, stunned at the girl she made. The girl who made me. The girl, stunned at herself.
My mother taught me that to fight is an act of forgiveness. If she never had any faith in her father, why would she bother?
When I was a toddler, my grandfather hit me. My mother grabbed him by the chin and said, If you ever do that again—and he didn’t. I don’t have this memory. In my mind, he was a barrel of a man who fawned. His head never turned backwards. He was a man who cried every time I sang or read a book aloud.
And I remember my mother, just over his shoulder.
Her father never visited her as a ghost, but his violence haunted my mother while I toddled under his knees or burst through his office door with a fistful of flowers.
My mother and grandmother also taught me that daughters inherit their fathers (and brothers), become responsible for them, become their keepers. You’re the only one he will listen to. We were all told it. My own father started to dissolve when I was seven.
My mother says she married him because my grandfather forced it. And maybe she loved my father, or maybe she would come to loving him later. After my own wedding, she told me she never wanted to get divorced.
But one thing I know for sure: she married him because she was pregnant with me.
First to dissolve was my father’s pinky finger—he came home and said, I’ve only four fingers! to no one in particular—then his right knee, then his left foot, and so on.
His backwards-turned head was the last to leave. It floated into the house, crowned by a halo of Marlboro smoke. Beer cans levitated to his face and down again. His angry, red mouth slurped and burped. By the time I was in high school, the whole of him had disappeared.
For a decade, he remained invisible.
All you could see were the contents of his stomach. Swirling liquor. A walking, sloshing, liquid mass entered the room and floated by the television. When I was old enough and angry enough, I told him to never call me again. I told him he would never know his grandchildren. I might as well have swung and punched him.
Eventually, years later, he called and begged me to come find him.
He had drunk himself into homelessness. By grace, or curse, or inheritance, I got in my car and drove. Something told me not to. To know better. My mind churned out scenarios. But something else in me, like a magnetic spool of thread winding, told me to answer the tap-tapping on the window. Please forgive me, Flora.
On the side of a highway outside Pittsburgh, his boots appeared in the mop-bucket snow. I pulled the car in. Cut the ignition. Then, his lanky legs seeped into focus. Next, his boyish hands. Cars whizzed by in the slosh. I unlocked the doors and told his knees to get in.
Though he was only hands and legs, he smelled. Steel-toed boots sopping, the limbs shook. The fingers lightning-crooked and cocked.
I can’t do this anymore, his voice said though he had no head.
The rest of him swiveled towards me and like a pressed face through a veil, my father glimmered into focus. My body blinked. In four years' time, my father would walk me towards a man who had disappeared once. My husband who I met in a bar called The Cage. We drank too much the first time around, didn’t connect underneath all that muddled mint and frosted glass and shellacked wood on our teeth.
He broke up with me on his front porch after pouring a beer and telling me he was sorry. I drove off to a friend’s house and got drunk in his backyard, golden fizzy pale ale with a frothy top. The friend told me good riddance. No one liked him. I agreed even though I knew it wasn’t true.
My husband reappeared after I wrote a book about my father. He read the story of how alcohol can steal a man from himself, water him down to drowning. He bought my book and called. I asked him to dinner. I wanted to sit across from him and gloat. See what you did? See how stupid it was to disappear?
We both ate curry chips in a sweaty booth. Instead of appearing all at once, he sharpened into focus. (He hadn’t really vanished in those five years, but instead, haunted the same old places and neighborhoods I did) I could see every freckle, the lines etched into the corners of his ears. It was the first time I ever heard him belly laugh, clear-eyed, head back, shaking the booth.
We talked and talked. About our fathers, our broken hearts, about how we both disappeared when we were younger, into whiskey glasses and highball glasses and shot glasses and long-stemmed wine glasses and cracked cans and amber bottles.
Back then, the first time we dated, I wrote poems and I drank. I walked drunk into the night barefoot until my feet bled from cut glass. The ghosts of the mothers and fathers before me clamoured on ahead and I barreled right through them like a blind ram.
Men can disappear, but women can, too: into violence, or poetry, or prayer, or ghost stories passed down, into fairy tales and folklore to avoid the more obvious, harder truth. Women and men muddled under all the women and men before us. It’s the same old story you’ve always heard. I played it out on him and he played it out on me.
In the booth I knew I’d marry this man who had disappeared. I could feel our legs turning to roots beneath the table. And later, as my father walked me down the aisle, he kept looking down, So you don’t fall, he said, so we both get there in one piece. Slow down, now, it's not a race. My mother was there, too, divorced from my father for over twenty years.
In the photo of us together, a family reappears. Our image burns clear in black and white in front of the brick and ivy of an old Pittsburgh Inn: a grandmother’s ashes encased in a necklace around a bride’s neck, a white dress stitched with silk yellow flowers and green vines, a husband squinting in the afternoon sun, and a mother and father laughing, holding on to their daughter.