Katha Fiction Contest 2013. First Place.
All the lights in my home are off. The snow’s so deep I’m doing lunges in order to get to the door, my breath mimicking cigarette smoke, my fingers on the verge of frostbite. Ringing the bell, I remember how I used to slide down the hill whenever it snowed as a child, clad in a parka. My father, a man who hated the cold, all bundled up in black puffy jacket, earmuffs and gloves, would catch me and, bless his soul, agree to catch me one more time as I would trot up the hill, out of breath as I looked out into the horizon, admiring how the sun’s light hit the snow gently enough to let it be, but strongly enough to let it glow.
I hear footsteps, a low murmur but it grows in intensity, louder and louder until I can make out certain phrases. The door swings open and there’s my father’s wife, cigarette in her right hand as she pinches my chin with her left. The smoke rises and finds refuge in her brunette hair. She’s aged, the wrinkles on her face becoming more comfortable since I saw her last. With thin narrow lines embedded in her cheeks, I feel sorry for her as I look into her eyes, eyes that have seen so much. But then, I notice my father slowly making his way towards the door, clutching a cane and smiling. His pupils have managed to retain that distinctive mischievous twinkle I first recognized in my childhood. He moves her out of the way and takes my hand and leads me into the home. The texture of his palm is rough, patchy; I wonder if he still takes care of himself.
“Oh, son. Son, you should have told us.”
“What’s happening here?”
“The power’s out,” Fatima answers, closing the door behind me. I spot a few candles burning in the foyer, dripping wax on the plates and I am overwhelmed with nostalgia.
“Did you call the power company?” I want to know.
We’re in the living room now and my father, Azhar, lays his cane down on the side of the burgundy sofa and sighs. After asking Fatima for a ginger ale, he shakes his head.
“I’ve been waiting for the right time to light those candles,” he says to me, winking. “You think I would pass up such a perfect opportunity?”
I’m quiet and for a while we just study each other. I’ve gained a little weight. His hair is almost gone. There’s a dumb tattoo on my upper arm that’s partly visible in this short sleeve shirt. I notice that his teeth, once as white as the clouds, are a strange brownishyellow color, caused by tobacco stains.
“Son,” he says again, blowing his nose, taking the ginger ale as she walks away. “I didn’t realize you would be here.”
Sheepishly, I look down and mumble something incoherent. I feel small. Why didn’t I tell him? Would it have been that difficult? What’s wrong with me?
Gulping, I say, “I guess I just wanted to surprise you.”
“I’m surprised,” he retorts, not missing a beat and I can’t tell if he’s serious. Burping after a few sips of the ginger ale, he tells me about how Fatima makes him the happiest man on the planet. He tells me about his work and how the guys Bruce and Timothy are still making it bearable. He tells me about how Bruce’s son was diagnosed with cancer, how he drove to the hospital and almost veered off the road and into a tree because he didn’t want to feel any more pain. He tells me about how one day he noticed Bruce didn’t come into work and found him weeping in his car, his shirt wet with tears. He tells me about how the wind lets my mother’s voice sing in his ears every February. He tells me about how one day, getting groceries at the local grocery store, he spotted a shoplifter and decided to let him go. He tells me about the instance in which he walked to the corner liquor store one summer day, bought four of five bottles of Jameson, placed them in easy access and finally kicked his drinking habit. He tells me about the time he got the call my grandmother passed, how the room’s temperature suddenly dropped to freezing, how he locked himself in the house for months and didn’t speak to anybody. He tells me about how much he missed me, how he wrote me letters but he never heard back, how Fatima could never understand.
The candles burn bright in the dark and I can feel my father’s soul shining brightly; proud, humble—innocent, even. And I can’t do anything about it. My soul—torn, berated, spit on and chewed up—isn’t worth hearing all of this. But, I sit there and listen to him quell disbeliefs about certain things and strengthen my tastes towards others.
There’s a lull in the conversation and for a second, I think he wants me to tell him where I’ve been. Why I left. Why mail addressed to me still comes to the house. Why the police come to the house every other month looking for me. Why I never stay for long. Why, in the dead of the night, when he is asleep and getting a little bit of semblance in his life, I call from miles away using a phone booth and just breathe into the phone, listening to him say “Is it you?” over and over and over again.
But, I’m wrong. He ignores the fact, pretends like it never happened. He’s old. Maybe his memory is warped—or maybe he just doesn’t care. Maybe he’s waiting for the right moment to make me feel worthless, abandoning a home at a time when it gave shelter to a sick mother, a grieving father, and a lifetime of wealth.
I’m exploring the home, running my fingers along the walls, reminiscing on the days they knew nothing. If they could speak today, I’m not sure if I could bear to hear a word. My feet move, as if directed by a higher power, on the wooden floor towards my childhood room, adorned with posters of musical icons worshipped in my adolescence, old novels I wrote notes in and cherished: all the things I had left behind. Rubbing my beard, I begin sweating and feel nauseous. Opening the door to the room in which I grew up, in which I thought of ending my life, in which I first recognized love, in which the sunset woke me daily through the window, in which I wept for my mother, in which I listened to music and danced, in which I paced back and forth pondering countless topics, I am lost. Before me is a utopia, a world which I have long abandoned.
The room is sparse, trickled down to nothing more than a mattress and a few random objects strewn about on the Persian rug. The walls have been robbed of their ornaments; some of the tape remains, meeting each other diagonally. But, I can’t bring myself to discern it from my youth. I close my eyes and see where the record player was, where the bookshelf was. It’s foreign to the naked eye and if I didn’t hold it so closely in my memories and my heart, I’m sure I wouldn’t have recognized it. It would have been another room. It doesn’t even look lived in, I think with disgust and, collapsing onto the mattress, the time occurs to me. Turning to lay on my back and stare at the ceiling, I remember hearing the arguments from my room as a child. Hearing the glass shatter, hearing the voices shout. I couldn’t forget the sheer terror I felt in my soul whenever it happened. Slowly, my eyes close themselves, as if they don’t want me to remember. It’s better to sleep, dream of a better life, envision an alternate reality.
A candle in the room, the sole source of light, burns before me and I wonder how long the power’s been out. I wonder if they’re able to pay the bill. Part of me wants to find out, part of me wants to leave the money somewhere in plain sight, part of me wants to grab my steely black suitcase and leave in the middle of the night with nothing gained but melancholia. The flame flickers, taunting me, and I stand from the bed, walk over to the candle and crouch down right in front of it, my eyes drawn to the ember and my nose drawn to the scent. I can’t remember the last time I lit a candle.
My gaze transfixed on the light, I’m back in the 6th grade, my mother crooning old family lullabies to me and telling me that middle school won’t be that bad, that when she was in middle school she loved it, caressing my forehead with a gentle touch and kissing it afterwards, leaving a glass of warm milk by my side. Before she left my side, she would always say that it’s okay to feel small sometimes, that it humbles you. I hesitate— my mother’s face flashes in my mind—and I blow the candle out. I’m submerged in darkness, somewhat shocked by how therapeutic it feels and, oddly enough and with much resignation, I’ve never felt smaller.
We admired “Light” for the fine focus and immediacy of its language. There’s a great deal of emotional depth in this glimpse of a life; perhaps what was most moving about the story was all that remained unsaid between father and prodigal son.
Mustafa Abubaker is a writer living in Atlanta, Georgia. He is the author of The Surrogate as well as the 2011 YoungArts Merit Award Recipient for Novel Writing. Mustafa has contributed to Complex, Wine & Bowties, The Aerogram, Pigeons & Planes, The Liner, Khabar, Loose Change, and more. You may read his work at www.mustafaabubaker.com.
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