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VICTORY PARTY by Sheldon Lee Compton

He talks to me through the trees. Not through them, like he’s standing on one side of a treeline and I’m standing on the other, but like he is the trees.

We will stay together, become taproots, strong and lasting, he says. Or we are both oaks.

Discussing trees and strength becomes tedious, and, sometimes, he starts in about my little sister. Those conversations don’t last very long.

***

The Olympics. 1984. Summer, because both Daddy and the man were wearing tshirts instead of coats. And because I’ll always remember Katarina. It was their fight that brought the police to Fox Bottom. Our area anyways, the part in the far northwest corner where Fleet Mitchell had his ratty garage fixed up as a body shop. But he didn’t fix vehicles, he sold cocaine. And this was at a time when almost everybody was only selling pot or cheap liquor.

One of the two men was my daddy. The other man, John something or other, was a nobody to me, just some guy who decided that night, the night the Olympic ice skating was on television, was the night he was going to shoot Daddy. It was Fleet who wanted him to do it.

That’s what he told us right before the fight started. He looked at me and my sister and said he was going to go shoot our dad. I remember his eyes were like wet glass in his sockets and his mouth sagged when he talked. I remember he smelled like mothballs. Then he whispered as he walked away that Fleet was going to set him up nice for doing it.

***

Before Dad went to prison we used to get together with all the uncles and aunts and cousins on Sunday nights and watch episodes of Chiller. It aired late Sunday night, 2 a.m., and me and my sister didn’t have to worry yet about school, being so little. The night Fleet tried to have Dad killed I kept thinking of how the show opened with that dark swamp and the craggy old tree and then the weird hand coming up out of the fog of the swamp. The music sounded sinister and then how, from somewhere in that deep blackness came a voice saying only hooooo and then chillllller. These days horror movies or shows remind me of how alone I am, skipping to the bathroom in the dark and back to an empty bed.  These days I’m in one of those episodes all the time.

***

It’s not that we shouldn’t be talking about my sister, his daughter, our kin, it’s just that we shouldn’t be talking. As in hearts would be lighter if we kept words out of it. We should be keeping that line, holding that grudge. But trees have that knack of sticking around, and I’m not going anywhere soon. So here we are, swaying and dying and returning to life and not talking about my little sister as best as I can manage. I have to remind my father. I’m right on point with, Let us remain positive; let us lift our chins. Let them not touch our breastbones in defeat.

***

Mom and a lot of her friends knew something was coming that evening and rustled all the kids into the top floor apartment where Mitzi had her little beauty parlor set up. It was the only place with a television. She turned on the television, told us not to go outside, and left. The channel it landed on happened to be showing the moment Katarina Witt took her second gold medal in figure skating events for East Germany.

All these years I’ve thought it was an argument about my mom, but that wasn’t even close. Daddy and the John guy were fighting over cocaine. And they were fighting, and yelling, more importantly, about cocaine loud enough so all of Fox Bottom could hear.

Estill Buchanan heard. And he called the police. He’d been waiting for a reason ever since Fleet moved into the bottom a year before and I blamed him hard at the time, but looking back on it I see he was an old man with no family. He was scared all the time.

***

It’s not that he died recently, alone at the head of a holler four counties away while I ate ice cream in Chevy Chase and later went to a Wildcat game. It’s not exactly that. It’s that the last time I saw him was at a victory party for his first cousin, a close family member who had just won an election for county clerk. He sat beside me when I got there and held out his hand for me to take. I didn’t take it. I still remember how the long hairs on his arm glowed in the sunlight and how he shrank into an old man when I got up to leave. It’s a ruination, forgiveness. I can’t have my mind changed about that. When he spoke he sounded like Shakespeare writing the Bible.

***

Before we talked through the wind in the leaves he gave me one, and only one, piece of advice that has lasted and never failed me. Always slap a man, and make sure you do it at the first sign there’s going to be trouble. They can’t charge you with any real conviction in a court of law for an open hand slap. This as opposed, of course, to a nice, tight fist. And, little missy – this is how he said it – and, little missy, it will break a man’s will with him standing right there in front of you.

***

When the police came the whole place lit up red and blue. The mountains went from dark to disco bright and dark again with trees flashing like Christmas lights. We all went to the windows to watch three cops drop Daddy to the ground and handcuff him. They dragged him belly-first to the squad car. It hurt like heartbreak at the time. It hurts like heartbreak now, and nothing makes me angrier. Not what happened, but that I still hurt.

So, yes, Katarina Witt won two gold medals for East Germany. That’s what I focused after the arrest. For weeks I followed news about Katarina Witt. I wanted to change my name to Katarina. Later on, the East German government gave her cars and jewelry, property and homes even, to keep her from defecting. I don’t know if she ever accepted any of the gifts but I always imagined she did. And I hated her for it, being famous, beautiful, successful, and getting gifts. And because it wasn’t only East Germany who loved her, the whole snobby world loved her.

***

I sat in a swing covered by a wedding ring quilt my aunt made. She was my dad’s older sister and therefore one of the few who would speak of him without reservation for the fragile and small amount of pride he had built up since prison. Part of that was this election win, his cousin’s day in the sun and, of course, his day in the sun. Maybe his first.

Seeing him move around the party so naturally, so organically, but, at the same time, with that underlying insecurity when he thought he might not be as welcome as he hoped reminded me of a wind hoping to gain strength but always held back by some object in its path. Even a force of nature is only as strong as the nature it encounters.

***

Little sister heard the same advice about taking a man’s pride by stunning him with an open hand but hardly listened. Something inside our father had been broken apart and my sister could see it, could sense it like a stench all over the man, and she was offended that she came from such weakness. She knew that for all the braggadocio and mustache pulling, our father was weak. The man’s desires made him so, the way he gave up on a thing the moment it took a little fight. His neediness. I was never able to feel that hurt as sharply. It never darkened my mind in the same way.

***

He had went from one end of Pike County to the other campaigning, knocking on doors the same way they did it in the old days. He bought votes; he drove those same voters to the polls. He attended church picnics by day and argued good old boy policies in honky tonk bars until they shut out the lights. And he loved every minute of it, that’s what it’s important for me to remember. The political process, the human side of it, the side where a campaign can become a spotlight to dance in, fed his ego. Now he wanted his daughter beside him, holding his hand at the victory party. He wanted the cake and wanted to eat it too. He wanted someone to bake it, in the meantime, and pay the grocery bill, pour the milk, light the candles. I’m of the mind that he’s old enough that his wants won’t hurt him.

***

But let us remain positive; let us lift our chins. Let them not touch our breastbones in defeat. Maybe I am a white oak and you are a hickory. And maybe you say one strong thing and it’s always another, weaker thing. So here we are, still talking and then not talking. The trees wave along the hillside, bending, but not for long. If taproots hold the ground here, you wouldn’t know it by the way the wind bullies them.

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