In almost all his photographs, our father is wearing long-sleeves, except in one picture taken at at the Shelby County Fair. In this picture, he stands beside our mother in front of a Ferris Wheel. His right arm is around her shoulders on that hot August day, the hottest day on record in Shelbyville, so our father has worn a shirt with short-sleeves.
My twin sister Elise and I stand side by side in front of our parents. We are five years old and dressed in identical lilac dresses; both of us hold red and white pinwheels. Within a month after the picture is taken, Elise and I will no longer wear the dresses or hold the pinwheels, but our mother will keep both in a box in her closet.
In almost every photograph, our father is wearing long-sleeves because of his tattoo. “He was embarrassed by that tattoo,” our mother tells us. Elise and I are ten years old now; we sit with our mother at the kitchen table. She lets us have hot tea with her.
“Embarrassed,” she says again. “Just a reckless moment. Midnight, in the Navy. And the next morning he wakes up with a tattoo. He hated it.” She takes a sip from her cup. “Sip slowly,” she reminds us.
“Maybe it was a snake crawling up his arm.” Elise says when we are alone in our room.
“Or a dragon with flames,” I say.
“You ask her.”
We know we will not ask; we want to keep changing his tattoo, more than we want to know.
In the photograph our father is smiling, though in his other pictures, he appears serious, with a worried look in his eyes. “He was always thinking,” our mother says. “Planning for tomorrow.”
She has pictures of him throughout the house: one by her bed, two in the living room and study, one in our bedroom and an album in the den—to help us remember him before that night. She is afraid to throw anything away. “We might need it sometime.” But she is always searching through what she saves, sometimes spending hours trying to find a sweater or belt that we don’t wear anymore, or an old newspaper with a story she wanted to read again.
“One day,” Elise says, “We will hide in our room and she won’t find us. Not in all this stuff.” She sweeps her hand through the air so I will notice again all the boxes of old belongings piled in corners. “If we hide, she can look for the rest of her life,” Elise adds as if she is planning where we can go. “But it won’t matter.”
I look at my sister growing taller than I am. I see her eyes, dark like his, and worried. I worry that one night she too will drive all the way to the edge of a lake, and she won’t stop, won’t come back. Like him, she will go to the bottom of Barkley Lake, and I will never find her.
In the photograph our mother looks younger than her age of 24. But after that, after 24, she begins to look older, and worried.
She worries we were so young, only four when he died. “What will you remember about him? How can you remember him?” When our mother dusts his picture, she asks us, “What do you remember about him?”
“Five,” Elise says. “Don’t you remember we were five?”
Our mother sits down; she holds her dust cloth still in her lap; she looks at us as though we are here and she is somewhere else. “But at four or five, you don’t remember.”
Elise sits down beside her. “I remember his tattoo,” she says. And her voice has the sound of fists pounding inside her.
“No,” our mother says. “No, no. Don’t remember that. Something else. Remember that day at the fair.”
At night Elise tells me she can’t remember anything about him. “And I don’t want to look at his pictures anymore.”
We are seventeen, she wants to leave, she wants us to be on our own. “I’ve met someone, Lenny. His name is Lenny. We can stay with him till we find a place.”
Not yet, it’s too soon, too sudden; though I am not sure more time will make a difference.
In the morning, Elise packs her clothes in a brown suitcase I have never seen. She goes to the living room and takes the photograph of our father at the fair. “To remember him,” she says.
Our mother is still in her flowered dress from yesterday. “He was going to have his tattoo removed. You didn’t know that. If he’d lived.”
My sister puts the picture in the brown suitcase, closes it shut. She moves close to our mother, tries to kiss her goodbye, but our mother backs away, tells her, “Go now, if you are going.”
Elise carries the suitcase to our front door. Outside a red car is parked in the driveway. I see a man inside the car.
Elise brushes her lips against my cheek. She whispers, “No matter how you leave, it’s not going to be easy." I step back, won’t look in her eyes.
The car engine starts and the man in the car motions to my sister to get inside.
That night when I cannot sleep, I remember our mother once read us a story about a girl who believed if you ran your hands over the walls of a house, you were certain to return. I imagine Elsie and I touching the tattoo on our father’s arm, our fingers tracing the design on our rooms, an invisible blue design that cannot be removed.