Fatherland

Angela Mears

This…this is clearly a case in which the packaging is cooler than the actual gift,” my father says, holding up a Spider Man hologram gift bag, twirling it in the dim light of our dining room so I can see the pictures change.

Christmas gift-wrap litters the long wooden table. It’s the evening of my father’s last day of class before the New Year. As usual he comes home with a trunk full of random gifts from his unusually generous ESL students. And as usual he has sprouted the jaunty step, the irritating sun-shiny aspect, of a man who’s been too well tended and too well loved. He has already smoked some high-grade hashish tonight, a thoughtful gift from one of his Iranian students. In his life in California, I realize, my father has surrounded himself with adoring immigrants.

In the few moments it takes us to tear through all the ribbon and paper, the wrapped gifts transform from a pile promising infinite possibility to a disappointing heap of Old Navy polo shirts, Dunkin Donuts coffee beans, and basketball shorts from Sears.I lift a gold bow from the mess on the floor and stick the adhesive end to my forehead.

“Better luck next year,” I say.

Dad is still spinning the Spider Man bag under the chandelier, letting it catch the light in a way that pleases him when Mother comes in to complain about the exuberant holiday-themed mess. If the bits of torn paper and ribbon looked festive before, everything seems a little stupid now under Mother’s stern gaze.

“Mamie, look!” he says, swinging the bag inches from her face.

“Black Spider Man,” she says, unimpressed. The tip of her nose grazes the glossy image.

“I…hate…black Spider Man.”

I chuckle at this as she scans the offerings. “Why do they always have to give you all this…junk.”

She lifts an argyle print men’s sock from the table, polyester, too small, and trails it through the air. She swings it back and forth, keeping it always at arm’s length. She loves to tease this way, without a sound.

Mother once gave my father junk at Christmas, too, along with his other students. It was a red satin pillowcase with a dragon embroidered on it, a strange gift, and to the casual observer, maybe even a sexy one. My father always remembered that present, and never threw it away though he never used it, maybe because he ended up marrying the giver.

I wonder if Mother is thinking of this when she snaps her head up and commands us to clean. She walks into the kitchen and we hear her throw the sock in the trash.

A thin layer of moisture seeps across my forehead where I’ve attached the gold bow and it springs free and takes this meandering path to the floor, where it lands without a sound.

“Angela,” my father says, sorting through the mess. “Come here. Look at this girl. She looks just like you, doesn’t she?”

He hands me this Christmas card. It’s a Kinko’s card, the kind where the family takes a hammy photo in Santa hats in August, and sends it off to everyone they kind-of-half know. I don’t recognize the girl in the photo, but she has the wild brown hair I had at her age. And I can see why my father says she looks like me. Like me, she’s half white. Half…something else.

“Yep,” I say, handing the picture back to my father, “Also the product of race-mixing, I see.”

My father laughs and says, “Your mother and I like to keep the company of our fellow race traitors. It makes her feel more comfortable.”

“Mom’s not a race traitor,” I say, after a pause. “She’s a race opportunist.”

This is a variation on one of our favorite themes. My father and I believe that we are allowed to say these horrible things, as long as, for the most part, we’re saying them about ourselves. He laughs again, and resumes cleaning up the mess from before. It occurs to me, only later, when I think of my father’s fawning corps of immigrants, his students, his wife, that my mother is not the only race opportunist in the family.

While helping him sort the torn paper from the reusable bags I find an unopened gift on the dining room table. It’s this porcelain statue of a white elephant the size of my father’s broad hand. Looking at it I intuit that it is exactly the kind of present he would fall in love with.

Some of his student gifts have a uniquely long shelf life, and find the wherewithal to stick around. Like the red embroidered pillowcase. Like the horrifying statue of a drunk Mexican with outstretched arms that has taken up permanent residence on our kitchen table. When he’s not holding the hot sauce he’s holding a bottle of cheap red wine. He stares vacant and smiling into the middle distance. He makes my father laugh.

But I’m wrong about the elephant. My father pulls the statue from its wrapping and the air around him is stale and underwhelmed. He tosses it lightly from one hand to the other, feeling its weight. “It’s hollow,” he says, and pauses, smiling. “Are…you thinking what I’m thinking?”

He’s thinking we can drill a hole in the trunk, and maybe one near the elephant’s asshole, and use it as a hash pipe. He hands the figure over to me. I flip it on its back and notice that three of the elephant’s legs already have holes in them. I peer into its empty torso. No drilling required.

With a small amount of resourcefulness and imagination, I have learned that almost any object can be transformed into a smoking device. Water bottles, coke cans, light bulbs, pen caps, plastic tubing, apples, watermelons, and, I hesitate to mention, tampons.

I show him how it might be done. Without delay he runs upstairs and begins to force a mesh screen into one of the creature’s hollow legs with the butt end of a yellow wooden pencil. He loads the device with the hash from the Iranian student. This particular strain is called Green Crack, he informs me, giggling in a way that is weirdly childlike.

Then he stands there for a moment as if posing for a picture, bent over the hash-pipe-slash-elephant, lighter in one hand, upside-down elephant in the other, elbows cocked, knees bent, and he flashes me this wicked smile before he flicks the lighter on and inhales.

And as is often the case with my father I can imagine what he looked like doing this exact same thing, in this exact same pose, forty years ago, only with a different implement. When he exhales the coughing spasms begin, and I pat him on his back as he hands the device over to me.

“Remember, Daddy,” I say, “Don’t cough. If you start you’ll never stop. Just…don’t do it.”Some fifteen minutes later, Mother emerges from her shower and joins us in my father’s office, the roomiest room in the house. It occupies the exact dimensions of the three-car garage directly beneath it. The hash smoke, which has a faint, flowery smell compared to straight pot, has completely cleared. My father is clicking through photos he recently took of a sunset, nodding his head, and giggling.

“Wow….Wow!” he keeps repeating to himself, more or less quietly.

“Is he high?” Mother asks me, drawing out her final syllable, and after years of asking this question she still manages to sound surprised.

“I…think…so,” I say, slowly, neglecting to mention that I, too, am gloriously stoned.

“Yes I most certainly am!” my father chimes in exuberantly.

Mother shakes her head at me and gets up to leave. “Oh God, oh God,” she says, as she passes through the door, and it is a mournful repetition. “Oh God.”