I’d heard the rumor that Putin was bringing people’s fathers back to life. It seemed the stuff of urban myth, some superhero lore cooked up by Putin and his minions to incite awe. Then I got a notice to appear at the Greenville County Health Department.
I handed a pug-nosed receptionist the card.
“I got my flu shot at CVS,” I said.
“Take a seat in the waiting room,” she said.
The room was perfectly square, with the receptionist behind a glass window on one end and a door smack in the center of an adjacent wall. I knew a guy sitting in one of the plastic and metal chairs that lined the other two walls, Phil Jensen. Phil had managed the horse farm where I got my certification as a therapeutic riding instructor. Then he retired and the place was taken over by two Texans who’d moved the ranch farther out, expanded it, and took on over a hundred kids and adults with physical, emotional, and mental disabilities. I’d been with them ever since, but Phil and I always got along.
“Here for a shot?” Phil asked.
“I already got one.”
“No copay here,” he said.
“Good to know.”
The clock on the wall was hours off. I sat in one of the chairs for only a second before I wanted to stand on another and move the hands ahead.
“You likin’ the new place?” Phil said.
I had only enough time to nod, when a woman in a pressed white lab coat came through the door. “Brian Mallory?”
“Here,” I said.
She reached behind the door and pulled out my father. Clothes similar to those he’d been wearing when the EMS took him away were starched with cleaners’ folds in the shirt. His hair had the slight comb-over he’d adopted as his dark blond hair thinned.
It seemed so natural to have him standing there. His sudden death had made me feel abandoned, and now I wasn’t abandoned anymore. My hands flew up and pressed briefly against my eyes.
“Ah, geez,” my father said and embraced me. He smelled of good fabric and coffee, almost the same as always except for a lingering hint of antiseptic. He also felt slightly askew, as if somehow being brought back to life shifted a few vertebrae right and a few others left.
Phil stood. He was a very tall man. My father admired tall men exclusively.
“Dad,” I said. “This is Phil.” Even deep into the mess of my parents’ split, when my mother pushed her fists into her jacket pockets so fiercely that the buttons flew off like bullets, my parents had emphasized good manners over emotion, even if that emotion included joy, horror, and confusion.
The men shook hands. I couldn’t stop staring at my dad.
Phil’s smile was wide as he looked back and forth. One eyebrow twisted up. “How long since you’ve seen each other?”
My dad and I laughed and stepped back as if genetics covered choreography.
“Like a year?” I said.
My dad nodded. “Yeah. A year.”
But it hadn’t been a year. It had been eleven. One third of my life to be exact. I’d brought my father up from Atlanta, where he’d been evicted from his apartment for not paying rent. All his stuff, including family photographs, a lump of coal with my grandfather’s name on it after decades in mining, and dozens of my father’s trademark size 13 wing tips, he abandoned. He was good at abandonment. But he always came back.
Back then my roommate Steve worked the night shift as a security guard. Steve was unfazed by the more than a month that my father slept on our couch. Me, I’d fall asleep with sounds of my father rattling around the kitchen grating in my ears like bad alto sax. He compulsively polished objects—kitchen faucets, range burners, refrigerator handles, doorknobs, and anything else that collected smudges. With two college guys, the place was one continuous smudge, and I listened to a lot of rattling before sleep won out. In the morning when I left for work, my father would be curled up on the couch with his back toward me.
One day Steve called me at work. “Your dad hasn’t moved.”
“He’s been through a lot,” I said. His latest deal included somehow convincing the court overseeing a truck stop in receivership to let him take ownership of three storage tanks of ethanol, which had yet to become a universal gasoline additive. Then when charm didn’t equate to making loan payments, as typically happened, he’d ended up penniless and on my couch. “He’s tired.”
“Maybe,” Steve said. “But I think he’s also dead.”
My father’s heart had just stopped. Probably a syncope, the EMS said. I had to look it up. If he’d been standing, the fall might have jolted him back, but he was asleep on my couch.
I called my mother.
“A heart can only take so much,” she said. I didn’t know if she meant the syncope or her own.
“I’m gonna take him back north, to where his folks are buried,” I said. “Will you and Bev come?”
“That man ruined my life,” she said. “He can go in the ground alone.”
“What about Bev?”
“I’m sure he ruined your sister’s life too.”
Steve’s stepfather was a mortician, so I got a discount, but I still had to tap into my student loan money. He drove me to Pennsylvania to bury my dad next to his family in a windswept cemetery that dated back to the 1700s. Some epitaphs were in German, which my father grew up speaking at home but I couldn’t understand one word of. Steve’s stepfather and I were the only ones graveside as the grounds crew lowered my father into the dirt. It wasn’t raining, but it seemed like it should have been.
Now Steve was an at-risk-youth counselor for the county. He didn’t flinch when I told him I’d gotten a notice to appear at the health department and had come home with my eleven-years-dead father. We read the same blogs, so Steve knew about Putin’s resurrections. My dad had asked to lie down for a nap on my bed. With the door ajar, I could see his socked feet—one pointed unnaturally right, the other aimed straight up from the mattress. The socks had a patterned sole—red and white, like for an athlete, with the characters “пoеxали!”[i] on the bottom.
“Putin rides bareback bare-chested in like forty degrees,” Steve said. “He spends the first two hours of every day in water. He anonymously shoots passenger jets out of the sky. He’s rebuilding the Soviet system. You ever see any women around?”
“I think there are women in his cabinet,” I say.
“Probably in drag,” he said. “Or transgendered.”
“So he brought back my father?”
“The guy wants a patriarchal society. That’s it. Why else indiscriminately bring back all these dads?” Steve said. “Think about it. If you had that kinda power, who would you bring back? Me, first on the list would be Brittany Murphy. Maybe Marilyn, if I could be assured she’d be in good shape. Janis Joplin would be cool, but probably too messy.” I could hear him inhale. His taste for pot hadn’t dampened. “This is by far Putin’s most subversive move for world domination.”
“If that’s the plan, I’m not sure my dad was the best choice.”
“Dads are the only choice, particularly misguided washouts like yours,” he said. “Sure as hell, Putin doesn’t want any Catherine the Greats running around. Besides, with all the wars and life expectancy what it is for us males, there’s gotta be more dads to resurrect than, say, moms.”
“He looks really healthy. Like he just spent a week in Florida.” I glanced through the doorway to my room. I could only see those feet in their socks. “How’s it even possible, technically?”
“You know better than anyone my father was embalmed.”
“New age magic. What the fuck else have all those ex-Soviet scientists had to do with their time? It’s classic that he came through a government-run health authority. Think about that.” Steve exhaled. “Dude, it’s perfect. Remember when I asked you, ‘Who would you rather have dinner with, Jesus or Bono?’ You always said, ‘My dad.’ I thought you were such a sap.”
* * *
It was true that while my dad went through his protracted losing streak of entrepreneurial pursuits and flattened the family’s nominal nest egg, alienated my mother, and forsook my sister and me in the process, I stood by him.
“He’s a young soul,” I’d tell my mother as she sifted through the stacks of unpaid bills he left in his wake and cataloged all the reasons none of us should ever speak to him again.
“I always wondered what that meant,” she said, one hand perched on her hip and clenching a lump of bills. “Now I know it’s someone who can’t keep a hundred dollars in the bank. Someone who runs up his wife’s credit card to buy”—she unfurled the bills—“three pairs of designer sunglasses, a custom suit, a week at the Plaza, and a Jag rental for a month. Most likely with some young floozy soul.” Bev and I called the groupies who materialized around my father “the credit card girls,” because we only ever knew them through those statements. My mother looked at me with this kind of half smile that said she was humoring me. “And we should never forget the guy who made his kids aware of what a process server is by the age of—how old were you the first time you had to duck behind the window when the sheriff came to the door? Now I understand, it was my mistake not to marry an old soul.”
“It’s just money,” I said.
My father was a fanatic for Norman Vincent Peale: Empty pockets never held anyone back, he’d parrot. He brought us other things—humor, an ability to draw, and oddly accurate insight on human relationships, particularly considering how many of them he’d screwed up over the years. When I totaled the car they gave me, he said, “They’ll always make more cars, but there’s only one you.” Or when my mother went into a funk when I decided not to go to law school: “We have dreams for you, but those are our dreams. Go find your own.” Or how our neighbors loved him to the point that even after they’d lost money to him, when no one had seen him for weeks because he was off chasing his next great idea and the lawn was way overgrown, they always asked, “How’s your dad?”
“Money is life, Brian,” my mother said.
For her, we measured time by when we had money and when we didn’t. By what we would do when we got it and what we couldn’t do because we didn’t have it. Even as a child I had an ability to catalog the price of everything, including things I had no interest in ever owning.
“My money. My life. You know how your dad hates the IRS, always talks about moving to Florida or the Bahamas or some place with no income tax? Well, he hasn’t held a paying job in twenty years. So the IRS isn’t a problem for him, but it is one for me.”
* * *
I hung up with Steve and went into my room to check on my dad. He now lay in the same position he always did on the couch. On his right side, with a pillow between one arm and his head, his left leg bent in a partial fetal position. It was the same position he died in. I came home that day and stood over his body as I waited for the EMS. He’d been cold and utterly still—like a doll Bev left out in the snow one winter—when I kissed him good-bye.
I bent down. His breath was light. Maybe being resurrected meant the jackhammer snores that Bev thought were the real reason for trouble between our parents were a thing of the past.
He opened his eyes. I jumped.
“Are you hungry?” I asked, swallowing hard on the astringent taste of awe and terror. I wanted to expand the question—do resurrected people eat? Had I ever seen a picture of Jesus sitting down to a meal after his?
“I’d like a ham sandwich,” he said.
We ate at my tiny kitchen table. I couldn’t keep my eyes off him.
“What are you gonna do?” I said. This question, which I’d asked a million times since I turned thirteen and it had become painfully clear that my father wouldn’t be talking to my class on Career Day and I’d be hiding behind the bleachers during Take Your Child to Work Day, seemed as charged as it always had. I couldn’t bring myself to ask, What does it feel like to be alive again?
“This ham is delicious,” he said, elbows resting on the table.
“Dad? Plans?” It was an old pattern—trying to be the grown-up when all you want to do is curl up in front of the TV and marvel at your dad making you a peanut butter sandwich. But it was me making the sandwich when he’d had a bad day, and he who’d turn on the TV to watch baseball with the sound off and a radio at his side. So instead of watching Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles or whatever my tonic of the moment was, I’d be staring at him staring at a silent game with the radio at his ear, eating that sandwich I’d made him.
“Mind if I stay here for a bit? Just until I get my bearings?”
“Bearings. I can see that.” It was too amazing to have him right where I’d wanted him so many times since he died. Every minute spent on anything else would be a waste. “It’s my day off.”
He used his tongue to suck his front teeth—a gesture I realized I missed. “I’d like to see where you work. You were still in school. Before.”
* * *
“How’s your mother? And Bev?” my father asked, sitting next to me in my truck.
“I haven’t been to see them in over a year, but they’re good. Bev works at a law firm near Peachtree.”
“Your mother finally got her lawyer.”
“She’ll never forgive me for spending my days with horses.”
“She always wanted security.” He stared out the side window.
I wanted to say, because she was constantly worried someone would come for the house or the car. Or that she’d be dragged into court as an accomplice to some big investment scheme that drained money from strangers looking for a massive return that never materialized.
As if he could hear me, he said, “Dream big, kid. Life ain’t worth it if you can’t dream big.”
“You should call Bev,” I said, but I knew he wouldn’t.
I turned into the long drive of Future Ranch, with its rolling pastures and enormous stables. “So what’s your take on this guy Putin?”
My father continued his hard gaze out the passenger window. “Who-tin?” he said.
“He’s the president of Russia,” I said.
“I was never into politics,” he said.
My father always had the ease of a cowboy in an advertisement. Every summer he sent my sister and me to a horse farm to exercise polo ponies during the off-season. Now his eyes were wide with pleasure as we walked to the fence to greet Eagle, an Appaloosa that seemed to connect instantly with every case he was assigned, including Kyle, an autistic boy who was all lurching head and flailing limbs until he got on Eagle. I thought he’d have bounced right off like a wound-up spring, but as we walked around the ring that first time, Kyle’s thrashing dropped into sync with Eagle’s even stride, as if horse and boy had done it a million times. Watching my father with the rolling hills behind him, I felt more normal than I had since I was a clueless kid who made sandwiches for my dad and thought families were forever. It seemed possible that he was supposed to be on this side of the dirt. It almost made sense. My father coming back to see what I’d become. The work I did. The people I helped. How I’d gone from a summer riding job to helping kids and families who had no other hope. Everything I’d wanted him to see.
My father reached his hand out to Eagle. The horse’s eyes rolled back. He let out a wailing nay and reared up—something I’d never seen him do—and took off across the pasture. The ruckus brought a few of my coworkers out of the stable. Everyone stared at Eagle’s receding hind end. Then they turned to us. I waved them away.
“I bet you love coming to work every day,” said my father as if horses running from him were the norm. He put a hand on the fence. His fingers still turned away from the thumb in a fan brought on by arthritis. Standing next to him, I caught a whiff of the antiseptic I’d smelled at the health department. I stepped closer and inhaled deeply. Formaldehyde?
“I’d really like another ham sandwich,” he said.
* * *
At Alma’s Diner my dad ordered two ham sandwiches.
“I thought you had to watch your salt intake,” I said. Or is that not an issue now?
The waitress was pretty, maybe forty years old, with a pile of yellow curls on her head. She placed a plate with the sandwiches stacked on top of each other and sliced diagonally in front of my father.
“I like a man with an appetite,” she said and swayed her way back to the other side of the counter.
My father smiled and stuffed half a sandwich in his mouth.
She brought the check to him. When I lifted it up, a folded slip of paper remained.
“What the hell is that?” I said.
My dad opened the paper.
“Looks like a phone number,” he said.
“That’s fucked,” I said.
“Hey, she’s too old for you.”
“Let’s get out of here. I promised Steve we’d have a beer with him.”
* * *
Steve’s favorite sports pub was lined with flat-screens and aged sports memorabilia most likely pumped new out of overseas factories. Our table was a race car tire with glass on top. I could smell the rubber. My dad studied the menu. Steve studied my dad.
“You look good, Mr. M,” said Steve.
“Thank you, Steve,” said my father. “You look good too. Not smoking as much marijuana, I imagine? Our happiness depends on the habit of mind we cultivate.”
I knew the Peale quote, one of several that were his staples.
Steve drank and looked back and forth between us. He raised his eyebrows. I watched them loop up higher and higher, the creases on his forehead getting deeper in the process.
“So, Mr. M”—Steve kept his eyes on me while he spoke—“what have you been up to since I last saw you?”
“This and that.” My father put down the menu. “I’d love to try this candied bacon appetizer. How about you, Brian?”
“Sure, get what you want.”
“You been working?” Steve wasn’t one to let go.
My dad looked squarely at him. “Steve, I’ve been on hiatus. Everyone needs a break now and again.”
Steve mouthed the word hiatus at me.
* * *
My dad and I got into a rhythm, almost like when he’d lived with Steve and me.
“I’ve gotten used to couches,” he said.
I wanted to ask, How? Where? But I also didn’t want to know. I’d lie in my bed before dropping off to sleep and hear him in the kitchen, rattling and polishing. In the morning, he’d be crashed on the couch with his back to me. Sometimes I stopped there. Though the apartment and the couch were a big upgrade from my college years, it seemed as if time had rewound and I was getting a second chance to have him near. Maybe all those years I missed him, wanted to have dinner with him rather than Jesus or Bono, was because I’d squandered the time he’d been with me. After he’d been away so often on some scheme or another when I was growing up, wasn’t it a gift to have his undivided attention, here in my own place? And on top of that, he still needed me. Like when I was a kid and we played catch, how it’d start nice enough, but then he’d be wailing the ball like it held whatever was weighing down his mind, and I wouldn’t shrink from that screaming fastball. I’d catch it, no matter how hard it flew or how far I’d have to lunge to get it. How it felt good to be there for him, even though sometimes my hand hurt for days afterward.
Other times, I’d be standing by one of my kids, one Eagle somehow transformed from a head-against-the-wall kid like Kyle into a totally present kid, and all I had to do was lead them out of the stable and around the ring, and I’d get a wave of anguish, as if Steve was still waking up at noon to stand in the living room scratching his nuts, assessing the figure on the couch, and getting ready to call and tell me my dad was dead. How I couldn’t bear to have that happen again.
Steve sent links to blogs about the Putin Resurrections, as they had been dubbed, which were happening, at least according to the bloggers, to families in places as far-flung as Fiji and Nova Scotia. How widows, sons, and daughters across all persuasions were wrestling with the same adjustments. How the reticence to ask What the fuck is our dead father doing back? was part of Putin’s conspiracy. How his former Soviet data crunchers had done sociological, anthological, and psychological projections on exactly the right fathers to bring back, so that saps like me would be too overwhelmed with happiness, horror, or a mix of the two. And these fathers weren’t stepping back into their roles, getting jobs, tilling fields, fishing, scamming, or whatever they’d done before they’d died, so rather than being useful to their families, they seemed to be biding time. How this surplus of men was just one in many Putin-led ploys to ensure that the Soviet system would come screaming back, but this time on a global scale.
* * *
The next payday, two weeks after my father reappeared, I decided I’d take us out to dinner—a real dinner that took time, had courses, where we could sit over a few beers, or wine even, and talk. I wanted him to know I’d made a good life for myself—something different from his and Mom’s, something my own. Over linguine with clam sauce, he’d spit out some of the really classic Norman Vincent Peale quotes and tell me how I’d found a larger-than-myself kind of success. Then if Steve or anyone else ever again asked me about who, living or dead, I’d most like to have dinner with, I’d be able to say No one, because I already did that with my father. And we’d have as many of these dinners as my budget would allow. It’d open a new world between us, a vast, rolling conversation loaded with wisdom that I’d pass on to my kids. Maybe resurrection even meant my kids would know my father. That he’d been born again to become the best grandfather ever.
I made a reservation at Umberto’s. I stopped at a men’s shop to buy a second blazer (I had only ever needed one), new pants, and a shirt for my dad. Since we were the same size, aside from the underwear I’d picked up at a CVS, we’d been sharing between his washing the clothes he arrived in. Except for those socks, which he’d wash, dry, and put back on while I was asleep.
I took the stairs up to my apartment two at a time with the hanging bag of clothes in one hand.
“Dad,” I said as I pushed open the door.
My father was sitting on the couch with a laptop computer on the coffee table. He looked up. “Hi, son.”
The arm holding the hanging bag slumped. How had my father gotten his hands on a laptop, and where on earth had he gained the technological training to use one? Then the diner waitress emerged from the kitchen, her pile of curls now let down to shoulder length. She was taller than she’d seemed and dressed up with a skirt, blouse, jacket, and heels.
“Hi, Brian,” she said.
Had I noticed before that she had a slight Slavic accent? How her cheekbones sat high on her face with almond-shaped eyes. She stepped forward to close the laptop over my father’s fingers.
I collapsed into a chair.
“Natalia is showing me all the great things computers do now,” he said.
I let the bag fall.
Natalia picked up the laptop. “We finish later,” she said, tucking the device under her arm.
“Finish what?” I said.
“Have dinner with us,” said my father gazing up at her. Then to me he said, “I called her this morning. Just happened to be her day off.”
I thought of the slip of paper Natalia passed at the diner, how my mother had scanned the credit card statements for evidence of philandering, how she’d record a list of amounts and catalog the total in a journal she always kept at her side. My parents had divorced before my father died, so there was no reason he shouldn’t be with someone else. But then again, it hit me hard this time: he wasn’t supposed to be dating—he was supposed to be dead.
“We have plans,” I said.
I went to the door. My father stood.
“She can join us,” he said.
“No, Dad, she can’t.”
I held the door open until Natalia walked through it. She blew my father a kiss from the threshold as I closed the door on her.
We stood with me by the door and my previously dead father in front of the couch. He wore the clothes he came in, not as sharp and pressed as they were when he’d appeared or been in the heat of pursuing some big dream. This rumpled exterior with his off-kilter posture and the slight disinfectant smell that constantly trailed him pushed me over the edge.
“You died,” I said.
“Son.” He reached for me.
“What’s going on?”
He plunked down on the couch. “I don’t have answers.”
“You died, right?”
“I went to sleep on your couch.” He touched the upholstery. “Not this couch, another one.”
“That’s because you fell asleep eleven years ago,” I said. “Then Steve’s stepdad and I took you to Pennsylvania”—I leaned forward for emphasis—“and put you in the ground.”
He shook his head.
I didn’t feel crazy. I didn’t feel scammed, which I had on more than a few occasions with my father. I didn’t even mind the loneliness that crept back into my stomach. It felt like a kind of power. Like getting through the nervous isolation I felt during the first stages of therapy with some kid who was completely out there, who’d never seen a horse and the last thing they wanted to do was get near one, let alone get on one. How you, the horse and the parent, if there is a parent, wait through the kid’s tantrum or the confusion or the fear, holding the kid steady, relying on the horse to stay calm, which they always do except when my dead father shows up. How it requires a kind of patience more like endurance, because you’re afraid. Afraid the kid will fall, afraid the horse will do something unexpected, afraid this time it won’t work and there won’t be that curative magic, that forging of connections across previously unforgeable synapses, emotions, joints, muscles, tendons, nervous system connections, or whatever limitations brought them to you. Then you take that first step—you, the kid, the horse, the parent. And that fear moves a bit from the center of your consciousness and you realize it’s okay to doubt, to not know what will happen, because there is power in making it through. In crossing the unknown, even though the unknown will be there again in taking the next step or in starting with some other kid. That dealing with the unknown is power. At least the kind I felt okay with.
“Are you back for good?” I said.
He stared into the kitchen where Natalia had been.
“No,” he said.
“I have to go with Natalia.”
“I don’t know.”
“Will you be back?”
“I don’t think so.”
“She’s outside waiting for me.”
“Now,” I said. “You’re leaving now? I knew you’d never stay.”
“One of my favorite Peale quotes,” he said. “‘We tend to get what we expect.’”
“I never expected to see you again,” I said.
“But you did,” he said.
A graduate of Cornell University, Ree Davis headed R&D for a Fortune 500 Company and gained masters degrees in architecture and creative writing. She lived on both US coasts, in Japan and China, and has worked as a cook, dishwasher, seamstress, farmworker, and baker. Her work has won two Pushcart Nominations and appeared in Narrative Magazine, Daedalus: The Journal of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, Limestone, and Penmen Review, among others. Her story “A Limitless Sky” was adapted to a radioplay by Delmarva Public Radio. She lives in southwest Virginia.