The Hunter

My first interaction with my father was when he ushered me to my seat before my brother’s wedding ceremony. I could find the twenty-year-old features, so familiar from the photo my mother had given me, in Riley Parker’s forty-three-year-old face, but the pale complexion I’d memorized was darker and ruddier. His sharp jaw had been softened with a little extra weight on his chin and cheeks. The bright blue eyes were the same, though. I had noticed I was the only one of my siblings who did not share those eyes. Mine were a greenish hazel identical to my mother’s.

My heart raced and my lungs stopped as he approached me with a warm smile, but all he said was, “Bride or groom?”

I flustered before sputtering, “Uh, groom.”

His left hand lightly rested on the center of my back while he indicated the direction with his right. “Right this way, m’lady,” he said, assuming a faint British accent which laid over his southern drawl like a crumpled sheet over a lumpy mattress.

He led me down the main aisle, to a seat near the center of the column of pews. Clumps of chattering guests twice forced us to walk so closely together, his arm brushed against mine. The fabric of his jacket was soft and cool and it invited me to put my hand on it, to stop his walking and tell him to look at me and recognize me and be my dad. Instead, I smiled and nodded at fellow guests we passed, wondering which of them might share my blood.

At my seat, I thanked him politely, as I would a stranger (he is, after all). He nodded and left to resume his post.

Later, at the reception, I planted myself by Jen’s side. I’d only met my little sister the day before, but in a sea of strange faces, she was an anchor of familiarity.

“Aunt May, Uncle Clyde! This is the sister I told you about. Allison, this is my uncle – my mother’s brother – Clyde, and his wife May. Guys, Allison.”

She’s told people about me. Of course. “Hi, nice to meet you.” I shook their hands, smiled as brightly as I could muster, and began looking for the bar. Instead, Jen steered me to another group of people, then another. Finally the deejay interrupted what I’d come to think of as the bastard-daughter receiving line to announce the entrance of the newlywed couple. I sought refuge at the table bearing my name card, but was discomfited to find Riley seated across the table.

After the speeches and Mike and Amanda’s first dance, I excused myself and stepped outside for fresh air. The room was warm and I’d inhaled two glasses of champagne. The cool Chicago evening was refreshing. I leaned against the church’s brick wall and closed my eyes. Guitar chords floated by and I listened closely. Here, finally, was a familiar piece of the world. The strumming was even and confident, unapologetically driving past flubbed and out-of-tune chords.

The song faded away, ending in a soft strum.  A moment later, there was a voice beside me. “Nice night out. Too bad it didn’t rain. That’s supposed to be good luck, you know.”

I laughed, opened my eyes and turned to the voice. “That’s what…” I tried to hide my surprise at seeing Riley. “Uh. That’s what they say.” I decided not to add the bit about superstitious drivel that had first come to mind. Instead, I smiled and focused on the battered guitar in his hands.

“Here, may I?” I looked to him again, and saw he was offering his jacket. “You look cold.” I realized my arms were crossed in front of my stomach. It was more a habitual gesture that served to isolate myself, but I couldn’t deny I had planned poorly when I purchased the sleeveless dress.

“Thanks,” I said as he draped the jacket over my shoulders. My cheeks warmed as tears threatened, and I focused on the the guitar at his side.

“Allison,” he said.

“Yeah?” It was out of my mouth before I realized he knew who I was.

“Just getting used to saying it. I’m glad you’re here.”

“Oh. Yeah, I – me, too, I guess. I mean – ”

“I know what you mean. Can’t be easy, I s’pose.”

I laughed out loud, a little more sharply than I’d intended. “You could say that. I thought a wedding would be a perfect place to do this, where I’m not the center of attention. I can meet people without having to actually meet them, y’know? But I feel like I’m crashing.”

“I’m sure Jen parading you around hasn’t helped keep it low-key. She’s thrilled to have you here, you know. She always wanted a sister.”

I glanced up, finding relief at the sight of Orion standing guard overhead, club in hand, prepared to leap from the skies in my defense. When I was little, I’d imagined Orion was my father, that I had to live without him so all the night sky could have a protector. That image was now safely stored in the fantasy bin to keep Santa and the Easter Bunny company, but I still couldn’t see the famed hunter without a sense of adoration and connection.

I wanted to confront Riley, to ask if he’d ever wanted Jen’s sister around, to ask why he’d never come back. I wanted to know his favorite color, and if he hated pancakes and spaghetti too, and whether he ever looked to the sky for some picture of me. I said nothing and concentrated on the stars.

“Listen…” he started, but trailed off. I turned my head, still leaning against the wall, and looked at him, willing him to speak. After a moment of silence, he began again. “I don’t know the right way to say this, and maybe this isn’t the right time. I guess it’s overdue. I’m sorry I wasn’t there. I never forgot you, but I guess that doesn’t mean much.”

“It didn’t tuck me in at night.” My voice was quiet. It wasn’t meant to be an accusation.

“I don’t have any excuses for not coming back. I was afraid, plain and simple. I was just a kid, and I told myself you’d be better off without me. It was probably true, but I guess I really thought I’d be better off, too. I’m sorry.” I wondered how many times he’d practiced that speech. It was a little too clean, too certain.

I thought about pointing out how afraid I’d been as a child, about all the times I’d needed someone to save me. But I’d already said more than I had planned, more than I was comfortable with, so said instead, with an outstretched hand and nodding to his guitar, “Do you mind if I –“

He looked startled, but picked it up and offered it. There was no neck strap, so I sat on the stone bench. It was cold, and I was glad to have his jacket. Before I played, I turned one of the tuning keys. “Your G sounded a little sharp,” I said, without looking up, and started strumming before he could say anything.

My instrument was newer, with a larger body and finer strings. But this worn guitar felt as comfortable as home. I picked up speed and without thinking, fell into the chorus of “Sing Me Back Home,” humming quietly.

You’re good. I mean, you play really – ”

I grinned at him, confident for the first time that day. “I know. Thanks.”

“I used to play that song for your mom. It was one of her favorites. Never did do it as well as Haggard. You – that – sounded just like him.”

I bowed my head to watch my hands. “No, it didn’t.”

“Yeah, it really – “

“I’m not being modest. I mean, I never tried to play it like Haggard did. Mom had a recording of you. I always preferred your version.”

“I only did it because I never could pick open notes very good. Chords were easier.”

“I know. Well, I figured. But easier doesn’t mean worse. There was more depth in yours, and the lyrics ask for that.” Or maybe I was biased because I was fourteen before I knew Merle Haggard had his own rendition.

I looked back up and saw him blushing. That aged Irish complexion hid it well, but – I was pleased to see – it carried to his ears. It wasn’t just their shape we had in common.

He cleared his throat. “Listen, I promised Mike I’d sing for the mother-son dance, so I should probably head in. How long are you in town?”

“’Til next Friday.”

“Can we have lunch tomorrow?”

I smiled and nodded, afraid to speak.

“Good. Maybe we’ll play some together,” he said. “You’re staying with Jen and her mom?”

“Yeah,” I said, standing and relinquishing his guitar. I remembered I was wearing his jacket, but said nothing, hoping he wouldn’t.

“I’ll stop by around 11:00. We’ll figure out where to go from here.”

He went inside, and I stood by the doorway, listening to him play, letting the music and the jacket envelop me, promising a tomorrow with a man I suspected I’d never truly know.

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