Red Dish

I don’t know why my Dad got set on fire. He’s just the kind of person who has destructive relationships and then gets set on fire. When he had tight, shiny burns on his chest, he had to be taken care of very delicately, like a shadow you keep alive by moving tiny increments to stay in the sun. Adjusting this, adjusting that.

Angry at yourself for being the kind of daughter who cries.

You get over it, because after a while it’s just the weather.

Dad’s not bad, it’s just that he was in that war that made everyone difficult.

I liked his war stories, though.

His favorite was the fishing story.

It started like this, the way he told me: He was on some battlefield, shooting his gun into smoke and past screams, and then later that night he was in a tent, dragging smoke from a cigarette, just thinking.

That always kills me.

Next time someone tells you their war story, with the boom and the ratatat, ask them if they slept in a tent later. People in battle always show up later in tents.

So Dad is in the tent—he told me this years later—and in the tent his buddy, Tim or Jim or maybe Jericho, is going on and on about fishing. He’s saying the fishing is incredible here in the place where the war is.

“There’s good fishing here, Maurice,” he says to my Dad.

And then my Dad probably said something.

And then Jericho probably repeated what he had said, because you always have to repeat things to my Dad since he’s so difficult: “There’s good fishing here.”

“Here?” my Dad might have asked, “here where the war is?”

“Yeah,” his friend would have said, “here in this place, over that hill.”

He would have pointed in the direction the hill was.

My Dad was all about it. He wanted to go. He wanted to go fishing the very next morning. He wanted to get up early and go fishing over the hill.

So they did. They got up early and went over the hill.

Over the hill they found the place Jericho said they could fish. Then they go to get out their fishing rods, and they realize it’s a war and they don’t have even a single fishing rod.

But my Dad says that they have the next best thing and holds up one of his grenades.

And he smiles like a grenade is the next best thing to have if you do not have a fishing rod. But then again it’s a war. A grenade is probably the next best thing to a lot of things.

So they start pulling the pins from the grenades and dropping them in the water. After a little while, the grenades start to burst with thuds they can feel in their chest and the water gets blown up. It’s raining on Jericho and my Dad, but there are fish in the rain, because the rain is the water from the small stream with fish in it. All of this water is flying in the air and onto the heads of Jericho and my Dad, and they are laughing and laughing in the rain they created with explosives.

“Wow,” they say at roughly the same time while ducking and raising their arms to protect their heads.

But it worked. They had all this fish.

They shared it with everyone. Their superior officers were mad, but they ate fish, too. Everyone ate fish, too.

It’s a good story, and that’s the ending of the story.

Dad loves to tell it, and we all love to hear it.

Because my Dad is the sort of guy who went fishing with grenades in the war, he also became the sort of person who gets set on fire.

Or maybe he was always that way, I don’t know.

But it’s only the one time that he was set on fire, and Mom just cried and cried.

He was there last Christmas at some party with some friends—his bad friends, the ones that never came around and still don’t. Mom told me later. She’s never met most of them.

So apparently Dad was at this party, just a regular party.

They were drinking, as they had been for years.

It was out past the depot and the farm and the country store where those feral cats live. There are two cats there with no eyes.

I only know one thing about the friends of my Dad that I haven’t met. They are like kids the way they party.

So apparently there’s some sort of fight at the party. But instead of punching or kicking or even just slapping, the upshot is that someone sets my Dad on fire. Someone—we never found out who—kicked a flaming log at him, like a meteor spit up from the ground. That’s what I heard. And Dad was wearing this sweater I gave him for Christmas. And the flaming log knocked him over, and, next thing, according to what I heard, is that my Dad was standing up from the ground, completely on fire, his arms just frantic wings of flame.

He ran screaming into the night. Downhill into the night. Flapping his arms. It probably smelled like a burned person.

Because it was Christmas, the guys brought him home.

They put him out first, of course; they were his friends. But he was pretty charred.

The ambulance driver said it was the most fucked up thing he had ever heard and asked what happened, but at the time we didn’t know exactly what happened so we said nothing.

Mom just cried and cried. Which I guess isn’t like saying anything, but I listened to her closely.

Dad had to go the hospital and get hooked up to some machines and have a little surgery. And then later we’re sitting around the table. This is much later, really. After the machines and the little bit of surgery.

Dad is burned over twenty percent of his body, but it’s been a while and he’s recovering. Everything looks good, really. And he’s in a wheelchair, rolled up and parked in a spot at the table where a regular chair would go, but now there is no regular chair. It’s just his wheelchair.

“What do you want for dinner, honey?” Mom asks Dad.

We all look at Dad.

He smiles. His face wasn’t burned at all. He’s still such a handsome man.

Mom says, “What do you want, Maurice? What do you want?”

He just grins.

Now imagine for a moment: Mom’s in the kitchen a while. There are kitchen sounds, and Mom humming softly to herself, and we’re all sitting at the table, and no one helps Mom in the kitchen. Imagine my Dad grinning the whole time. He has gray hair and weighs about 200 pounds and has green eyes and his smile is the most beautiful smile like a crack in a gem. He’s such a handsome man.

Then Mom brings the plates and the utensils. An intense feeling of gratefulness surges through me. I feel like I’m inside something I was never tempted to enter until I’d lived there for a long time. Imagine Dad grinning.

And then somehow Mom brings out this fish—somehow it’s one of the fish Dad caught in the war. How much had to blow up for this.

The fish’s cooked and hot and shiny.

Dad has burns over a stiff, shiny portion of his body.

The white fish shines like a star, like a winter evening cooked and laid out on a red dish. The fish has no eyes. I think about those cats with no eyes. But the fish just sits on that red dish. And I look at it a long time. It’s lost, we don’t know where the red dish is anymore.  

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