Father, Who Art in Pieces
Mother told the triplets that he’d never really fit in. Czeslaw had embodied the Old World, carried the odor of window-hung prosciutto and silver polish. His form hunched in ocher, darkening only the vaguest archways of their childhood. In 1995, he had been drawn and quartered by four hirelings. Mother shielded the triplets from the details—chains to secure, forklifts to separate, oil drum to hide—and, though he was their father, the girls grew to remember him only as an ancestor who’d led a mournful, quiet life.
Fresno Freight vs. Czeslaw Kowalski dragged for over a decade, the decision in Czeslaw’s favor rendered a month before their eighteenth birthday. One morning that month, mother laid aside her knitting. “Dad,” she told the girls, “for that’s what you must call him, arrives tomorrow. The company will ship his parts for reconfiguration.”
“Reconfiguration,” Connie repeated.
“Reconfiguration,” Ruth repeated.
“As part of the settlement, Fresno provides the means to put him back together—and update him.”
The triplets, particularly Connie and Ruth, didn't understand. They’d never been asked to be anything but girls; “Dad” had never been anything but Czeslaw, a smudge in sepia photos.
Only Stella had enough sense to lose sleep that night over the meaning of his return. He didn't belong in her immanent adult life. Awkward ways of leaning on stone and coarse materials haunted her dreams. It seemed easier to have a departed father, one who gave neither permission nor rebuke. She remembered him in his coffin, dignified in beige and earth-ready. Though invented—he'd never been buried—the memory brought comfort.
• • •
Two crates bearing the company’s logo appeared the next day on their doorstep. Under Mother's direction the delivery men placed the small one, containing Dad, in the center of the knitting circle. The large crate, which held the reconfiguration oven, they left under the carport.
“We'll add a contemporary touch,” Mother told the triplets as she pried at Dad's crate. Instead of her usual house dress, she wore jeans and a United Colors of Benetton T-shirt.
“Hush,” Stella told her sisters, who were afflicted with echolalia. “It means up-to-date. Like Jimmy Diamante’s dad.”
Mother removed a severed arm from the crate. The skin’s lurid discoloration had resulted from years in a government fridge, handling by coroner, police, and judge.
Stella felt a distant illness.
Mother instructed each daughter to remove a body part. Ruth took out a bent leg, still clad in breeches and a brogan. Connie plucked a shoulder from the square of darkness. If it weren’t for the scant fabric frozen to the skin, Stella thought, Czeslaw’s parts would resemble butcher’s chops. She groped on the crate’s bottom until she reached a hank of hair. A tug brought Czeslaw’s head onto her lap, his expression was stern and in keeping with long ago.
“When can we put him together?” She wanted to feel something besides dread at his pieces.
“There are things we must do first.” Mother drew from her pocketbook a ring with a bloodred stone setting. “Many fathers wear class rings to show school spirit.”
Jimmy Diamante’s dad wore a class ring, but he’d been the quarterback of Stetson High. With some twisting of the ring and straightening of a finger, Mother adorned Czeslaw’s hand. “There. Now you girls must assimilate your parts.”
Stella broke into sobs, was slapped by Mother’s silence. The silence said, “You're the role model.”
Mother instructed Ruth to saw off a frozen toe from the foot she held. Though a very stupid and insensitive girl, she almost fainted. Stella rushed to steady her, and Mother brought a cool rag to drape over her brow. While Ruth recovered, Mother explained they were to tell Dad about his lawnmower accident. “In the Old World a grass yard would have been anachronistic.” Before Connie could repeat, Mother said, “An anachronism is something out of its time.”
Like Czeslaw, Stella thought.
Connie tattooed a bald eagle onto Dad’s shoulder with a kit Mother had ordered off eBay, and Stella squirted his neck stump with Old Spice. They returned the remains to the crate.
“Girls, you will be women soon, with a modern dad. His cobbler said Dad's brogans would be about a men's six in Adidas. I've tossed his rope belts and scratchy shirts. Squash is Dad's favorite sport. He watches Conan O'Brien, leaves his work at the office.”
Connie opened her mouth to repeat, but Mother gave her the look.
“We have memories to restore,” Mother continued. “The Mountain West trip. A blue camper with a dent on the front fender.” Stella had never been west of Pennsylvania. “He bought us front-row tickets to Dave Matthews in Jackson Hole.”
As Mother created the past, the crate loomed in Stella's periphery. Her prom with Jimmy came in May. Would Mother have Dad wait up, propped in the bay window? When she packed for Swarthmore would Dad be among her luggage? The room hummed. Sweat gathered beneath her new breasts. It was all she could do to keep from leaping up and nailing the crate shut.
“We'll all be much happier when it's done,” Mother said.
Reconfiguration prep kept them up late. Fresno Freight had sent rods, but Mother insisted on using shish kabob skewers. “He'll come out better homemade.”
The skewers slid without resistance along the bone into his pieces of thawed flesh.
By dawn, Czeslaw lay spread out on his back like a primitive toy. Mother assured the girls that the inevitable gaps where the skewers showed would be cauterized and sealed during reconfiguration. They lifted him, careful to support all limbs, and hung him on a hat tree inside the oven. Stella shut the steel door, and it self-started, a convenient light illuminating the scarecrow within—gleaming sneakers on stalks, a lumpy polo. For Stella this view of their father suggested the safety of a museum display.
• • •
After sleeping and not sleeping, according to their temperaments, the triplets descended at noon to find Dad slumped at the breakfast table. He grasped his coffee mug with a hand pink as baked ham. Mother squeezed his other. “Your daughters.”
Czeslaw gazed at a corner of the ceiling. The oven had clarified his dull eyes into a piercing blue.
Connie and Ruth twirled their skirts and curtsied. Each popped behind one of Czeslaw's mismatched shoulders and beamed at Mother.
“Stella?” Mother's voice thinned to a blade.
Stella inched to her father's side and waited until his gaze refocused, five feet lower, on her face. He no longer smelled of Old Spice but of something left too close to a space heater.
Czeslaw dropped his head as if to nod, left it lowered. A bald spot Stella hadn't noticed the day before was visible amidst his crispy follicles. Something struck her as familiar in his threadbare demeanor, as though he were here now in the same bygone way he'd always existed in her mind.
“Welcome to America,” she said.
• • •
For reasons Mother did not reveal, she made Stella take Czeslaw on a tour of revitalized downtown. Stella interpreted the task as a test of her loyalty.
Mother called her into the kitchen while Connie and Ruth entertained him in the living room. “Be sure to tell him about his assimilated parts. Remember: the tattoo's from his Navy days, class ring from Stetson.”
Stella heard Connie and Ruth laughing with or at their new father. When he'd drunk coffee earlier, it had seeped out of his improperly joined right arm, and Mother determined to write a letter to Fresno.
Stella strapped her father into the passenger side of the Dakota and drove to the fixed-up downtown, which was a single street. His burnt smell, unpleasant at first, brought out a feeling of sympathy in her now, something she hadn't experienced toward a relative before. Having a father must be like having a baby. She fed the meter and took his brittle hand.
“What would you like to see?”
“That's me,” Czeslaw said. He gazed into the truck window.
Stella feared the reflection might scare him, so she tugged him gently down the street toward the much touted outdoor mall. He toddled beside her, wide eyed and head turning with the out-of-control suddenness of ice tilted in a glass.
“Do you remember who you are?”
“My foot hurts.”
“You cut your toe off with a lawnmower.”
He stopped in the middle of the sidewalk. A couple of ninth-graders, college girls' little brothers, separated like currents in a stream and swept past. Czeslaw creaked and groaned as he tried to reach his left shoe from a standing position.
“Easy now. You're just out of the . . . you're not quite well.” Situating him on a green bench made of recycled cans, she slipped off his sneaker and ankle-cut sports sock.
“I did that?”
Stella looked away from his melted doll's foot. “No.”
“I do remember a great pain. All over my body.”
Mother had promised he wouldn't remember. A few years earlier, Stella found the newspaper article about his dismemberment. She'd stopped after the first column—old-school oppression, dark ages of management, Cromwell, remarkable friability of the human body (here she'd imagined Czeslaw, screaming for the first time, in a vat of oil)—and, dizzy, handed the article back to the librarian.
“It was a mistake,” she said. “You slipped on wet grass.”
“I remember twisted faces, then sky.”
Stella put the shoe back on, not bothering with the sock. “Don't worry about old stuff.” She raised him to his feet, and they continued their stroll, past maple saplings in wood-chip beds, a collie tied to the lamppost outside the post office. “What do you remember about me?”
“I am sorry.” Czeslaw pressed together his fingertips on one hand and then spread them out, as if to indicate an explosion. “Poof.”
Stella repressed an unreasonable disappointment. Then anger at Mother for using her. The triplets didn't matter; only Czeslaw did and, behind him—behind everything—Mother.
“I'm your only true daughter,” she said, without premeditation. “Back at the house, those were my step-mother and step-sisters.” The lie hardly felt like a stretch. Her sisters hadn't learned to eat with forks until age twelve.
Czeslaw made no comment, though he nodded to indicate he'd heard. He puckered his bluish lips as if to whistle. Only a hiss of air escaped. The idea that he didn't remember Mother, that Mother could be out of mind, was freeing. They passed a window filled by a “Coming Soon” sign for a kitchen store. Classical music played in the loudspeakers outside, which, according to Stella's best friend, Jemma, was an attempt to keep black people away.
“Do you have many suitors?” Czeslaw asked, smiling in a pleasant, broken way.
“Many, but I'm betrothed to an older gentleman.”
Czeslaw nodded as if the story was common. Maybe, like the “great pain” he'd mentioned, the scenario was familiar to him on a subconscious level. It was his and Mother's own story. How many times had she told it? Mother the Prairie Princess, pressured by nostril-flaring parents into wedding a man twice her age and well situated at a freight company. Could Mother be blamed for turning into the tyrant of her female brood? Stella thought she could.
“I'm marrying Mr. Diamante for love, against Mother's wishes.” She recalled the yacht-tanned face of Jimmy's handsome father, the minty gum he snapped. He always sat by Mother at Stetson home games. Feeling guilty about Jimmy, she blanked her mind. “The boys my age are so—”
“Unsettled?” Czeslaw nodded toward the ninth-graders who'd passed them earlier. They crouched on the gum-free, uncracked sidewalk by Starbucks, shaggy-headed and scheming about the near future.
“Stella, Stella, Stella, Stella,” Nathan Kenmore teased. “Who's your buck stud?”
“Pay them no mind, dear.” Czeslaw's joints were already moving with surprising lubricity.
Several blocks ahead, a gaggle of kids closer to Stella's age, including a few seniors, drifted their way. She and Czeslaw must look like Dorothy and the scarecrow, Stella thought. Her friends' greetings and comments might give the whole lie away. She felt hot in her skin—a trespasser.
An alley broke off the main street just past the mall renovations and led over to what, according to Mother, was simply a rundown, vacant area. Stella guided her father down the alley and onto a cobbled street. Compared with the revitalized area behind them, all was dark and quiet.
“This is more to my taste,” Czeslaw said.
As they trod down the cobblestone street, Stella noticed furtive activity in an alcove to the right. A whiskery face bent over a bed of coals, a blacksmith mending a horseshoe.
“It sounds like your heart's in the right place.” Czeslaw tipped an invisible hat at a beggar woman stooped by a sack of junk. “An older man knows what he wants.”
Stella realized he was still considering her lie about Jimmy's dad. The beggar woman showed her a respectful sneer, something like recognition.
“I'm glad you approve of my choice, though I'm not fully decided on the match.”
“As you wish.”
They walked on and met more and more people, some dressed in rags, others in costumes like Stella had seen at school plays. Tights, ruffled shirts. The stench of body odor, animal dung, and rotting vegetables filled the air. Soon they reached a block bustling with people pushing carts, strolling in groups. Torches hung on the walls that bounded each side of the street. In the wavy light beneath, merchants stood behind impromptu booths, beside livestock pens, hawking their wares.
A clatter and a snort, people leaping to the side up ahead. Around the bend, down the center of the street, trotted a donkey, trailing its bridle. Czeslaw tipped the invisible hat again and the carefree traveler passed. A man killing chickens who'd seen Czeslaw's gesture burst into laughter, showing huge yellow teeth. The donkey's clatter faded behind them in the crowd's noise. Stella thought about remarking that she'd never seen a donkey, or encountered so many strange sights and smells in their suburban community, but Czeslaw seemed so comfortable here that she didn't mention it.
• • •
When they returned from downtown at nine, the front door was locked. A man's voice, loud in conversation, sounded within. Stella knocked twice, receiving no response.
“Who's the man I hear?” Czeslaw's voice expressed simple curiosity, no suspicion or alarm.
Stella recognized Mr. Diamante's voice from always sitting near him at school functions. His wife, Mother explained, had turned out no good. Jimmy's father had never been to the house before because Mother said that wouldn't be proper with Dad away from home. This was back when Czeslaw was in the state's evidence.
“A family friend,” Stella said. She fished the spare key out from under the drain pipe.
Mr. Diamante stood with one foot propped on the chair, for which Mother would have scolded anyone else. She and Stella's sisters sat blushing around the table, rapt by a story about Jimmy.
“I gave him a choice: baseball or football, something purebred American. See, football in old England is soccer, and you don't get more US of A than old cowhide and a slugger.”
“That's right, ladies.”
“We're here,” Stella said. Her heart raced as Mr. Diamante rotated his torso in their direction, snapping his gum. Though his hair was salt-and-pepper, his eyebrows held no gray. A slender gap between incisors emphasized the opalescence of his teeth. Something about these contradictions hinted at secrets reserved for the prettiest girl.
“Hiya, Stella; Czeslaw, old pal.”
“Dad,” Connie corrected.
“Dad,” Ruth corrected.
“Mr. Diamante need not call him Dad,” Mother hissed.
Mr. Diamante slid his clean hiking boot from the chair and offered the place to Czeslaw. Almost twenty-four hours after his reconfiguration, Czeslaw strutted over like a teenager.
Stella remained standing, too hot to move.
“Say, Penny tells me you had trouble with the old lawnmower.” Mr. Diamante winked at Mother.
A glow Stella had never witnessed softened Mother's face, and she laid her chin on a hammock made by the backs of her hands. Stella understood then that she'd invited Mr. Diamante as a role model for Czeslaw, now that it was proper for him enter the house.
“I sliced off my pinky toe,” Czeslaw said. “Would you like to see?”
“Ah, ha ha.” Mr. Diamante retucked the front of his polo. “No, thanks. That must've hurt.”
Connie and Ruth were giggling with peculiar ferocity. Giggling was their typical behavior, so no one noticed at first, but they'd raised their Gap T-shirt to reveal perky breasts, familiar pink-nippled landmarks of Stella's mornings. Mother slapped each and dragged them, howling, to bed.
“Gosh.” Mr. Diamante's tanned neck reddened underneath, revealing innocence that pleased Stella.
“You must excuse my sisters. They're just now experiencing womanhood.”
They listened to the sounds of slamming doors, shrieking, before Mr. Diamante returned to his script. “Tell me about your class ring.” He showed his own, and winked.
“This thing? I got it from Bologna after completing the quadrivium.”
Mr. Diamante winked again; this time it seemed involuntary, more of a twitch. “You don't say. I guess us athletes got out of that course.”
Though Stella didn't like to see handsome Mr. Diamante out of his element—had never in fact seen him that way—she grinned, proud of Czeslaw. For hours, earlier that evening, they'd wandered the unrevitalized cobbled streets, Czeslaw explaining how they'd been laid centuries ago in concentric circles behind Haddonfield's old city wall. He knew much about towns of that type in Europe. He introduced Stella to scores of merchants—cooper, furrier, arkwright, fletcher, chicken butcher, chandler, salt boiler, glazier—all as if he'd met them before. And perhaps he had. He asked the merchants and artisans to talk about their jobs for his daughter's benefit, and they happily obliged. Stella found the fletcher most interesting because that was her friend Jemma's last name. A horsey man with a mane of red hair, the fletcher demonstrated how he'd whittle each arrow staff from pine and notch grooves at the base for the turkey feathers.
In a tavern, where drinking age was a concept centuries in the future, Stella and her father ate greasy meats and drunk dark beer full of sediment. Stella told her father all about the reconfiguration. The dark drink and homey yet foreign atmosphere made the details—no matter how gruesome—easy to spill. Plus Czeslaw seemed gratified, amused. “The pain I suppose is not so bad then.” This, Stella thought, is how daughters are supposed to know their fathers.
By the time Mother slinked back into the room, Mr. Diamante was utterly confused. The quadrivium, he'd been told, was the equivalent of the upperclassman curriculum at medieval universities. “Say, where did you go to school again?” he'd asked Czeslaw.
A few scratch marks from her naughty daughters lined Mother's cheek. If Stella knew anything about Mother, it was how to read her appearance. Even if she didn't know what each eye-slit aperture and twitch of the nose signified, she'd learned to recognize combinations and associate them with approval or punishment. Her current expression—mouth a line, round eyes unblinking—often presaged erratic behavior such as storming off at night or cutting an offensive magazine to ribbons.
“I'm so sorry, Jimmy. Sometimes I wonder if they're my own children. At least Stella is dependable.”
Other parents never called Mr. Diamante Jimmy. Stella felt a twinge of jealousy and moved closer to Czeslaw. “Why don't you tell Mr. Diamante about your tattoo, Dad?”
Mother's shoulders released tension, and she resumed her place at the table.
Czeslaw crossed his legs in a limber European manner, twirling one foot. “Suffice it to say that up until 1492 I belonged to an elite guild of artisans in Rouen. My brethren branded me with our secret symbol, a balding eagle. It hurt like the devil but made me a brother for life.” Czeslaw pulled back a sleeve to show the tattoo Connie had given him. It looked infected.
No one spoke. Each of them studied the inflamed bird—American flags for wings, arrows in its clutched talons—as if the secret of Czeslaw's identity lay there. Then a rising, shrill sound filled the room before separating into Mother's words.
“Why didn't you tell him? He's reverted! All the work, the expense, the sacrifice.” Something had come undone in Mother’s face. She seemed oblivious of Mr. Diamante's presence. Instantly teary, Stella noticed that Mother's burnt sienna lipstick had shifted to the right of her mouth. Her bob cut floated a half inch above her brow. Stella rubbed her eyes, but that didn't help. Mother was out of focus. Dad intercepted her as she rushed toward Stella, press-on claws flashing.
The front door clicked shut, only a mist Mr. Diamante's Old Spice remaining.
“Calm down,” Dad said.
Mother writhed against her husband. “What did she tell you? What?”
“She told me everything.”
Stella retreated to a corner. If Dad began to break against her pressure, she'd run to help. Mother's jaw continued to move, independently like a marionette's, but no more words emerged. Her waxed eyebrows had fallen over her eyes, creating dark slits. Stella watch Mother as through a pane of glass. Maybe, it occurred to her, if she waited long enough, Dad would be holding someone else.