Meme and I stood in the doorway of Dad’s room, it was as if an invisible shield kept
us from entering, the smell of old Marlboros still thick in the air. I stepped in slowly, navigating the multitude of clothes blanketing the floor, breaching my father’s domain. Whether the piles were clean or dirty, I had no idea. I knew I wouldn’t find his pipe in here; it was with the things the EMT’s recovered when they picked him up. I’d only seen his paraphernalia a few times. Hopefully, he didn’t have a stash hidden. I’d kept it together pretty well the last few weeks, but I didn’t think I could handle that.
I stumbled to his bed, the springs creaking sharply as I sat.
“Well, I’ll leave you to it. Like I said, you get first pick of anything you want,” Meme said, her eyes flittering to her son’s scattered belongings. “Let me know if you need me. I’ll be in the den.” She closed the door as she left, sealing me in.
I glanced around the room, attempting to somehow decide which of Dad’s belongings
were worth keeping, condensing my memories of a man into a box. His side table, a mahogany-colored TV tray stolen from the den, was caked in ash as if he’d started putting out his cigarettes directly on the wood. His pillows looked like tumors, uneven, lumped, grotesque. I suppose when you’re high, you can’t really feel the mass supporting your head. I picked up his comforter and wrapped it around my shoulders, wondering how long it would smell like him.
His books lined the single, yard-stick length shelf on the wall to my left, Anne Rice, Stephen King, and Dean Koontz all wondering if I’d take them home. The shelf was the only part of the room with any kind of organization. He’d always wanted me to read what he loved. I stood up and stacked the books in my box.
The Girl Who Loved Tom Gordon—Stephen King, published in 1999
Since my parents’ divorce when I was three, Dad and I had lived with his mother. Meme owned every book Stephen King had ever written. The stone walls of the den were lined with shelves, housing his entire catalog. She even owned the ones she hated like The Tommyknockers and Cell. The wall of texts felt enormous, as hundreds of spines stretched from floor to ceiling. I stared at the wall, my 10-year-old mind overwhelmed not only by the volume of content in front of me but the sizes of individual books as well. The Stand and It stood out the most, their spines thick with the promise of difficulty.
“Where do I even start?” I asked my grandmother, who sat in the recliner next to mine. Meme smiled, her dark brown eyes glancing at the wall.
“You should ask your Dad. He started reading King when he was young too. The Girl Who Loved Tom Gordon was always a favorite of his.”
I pulled myself up from the chair and made my way through the winding house to Dad’s room. I knocked but was met with silence. I knew he was in there, though I hadn’t seen him since yesterday morning. He’d said he was feeling a little under the weather. I agreed, noticing the slight bags under his eyes and the unusual paleness of his skin. But he’d have to be feeling better by now. I knocked again, slightly harder than before, and put my small ear to the door, listening for signs of life.
I almost fell back in shock as the door was flung open, my father’s large figure in the doorway. His eyes were glassy, bloodshot, and the bags under his eyes must’ve darkened by at least four shades of purple. He looked like a ghost. A sleepy, agitated ghost.
“What,” he said, flatly, the sentence sounding much more like a statement than a question. He wanted me to leave. I tried to glance into his room, but his body blocked my view, the smell of cigarettes and something like burnt plastic seeped from behind him.
“I, uh…” I stuttered, picking at the tips of my fingernails and averting my eyes from his. “I was just wondering which Stephen King book you’d think I’d like. Meme said something about Tommy Gordon.”
He sighed, rubbing his right-hand index and middle finger hard against his forehead and closing his eyes. “Yeah, that’d be good, I guess. Can we talk about this later?”
Before I could answer, the door was shut, and I was alone. Dad had retreated into the cigarettes and the burning plastic and the darkness. I turned away from his door, stepping into the bathroom across the hall and shutting the door softly behind me. I sat on the cool tile, my back to the bathroom cabinets and let a few tears free. Tommy Gordon stayed on the shelf.
Interview with a Vampire—Anne Rice, published in 1976
I’d read 250 pages since we’d gotten back from Barnes and Noble that morning. The Twilight Saga fueled my angsty 14-year-old soul and I’d devoured the first book in a night, begging my father the next day to buy me the second book. I hadn’t gotten past the living room, lazing on the unused, decorative couches and opening my new book. Dad left me alone for a few hours before finally interjecting.
“Girlie Girl, we have to get you a real vampire book,” he said, plopping hard on the couch next to me. I dog-eared the crisp page, rolling my eyes at my father.
“This is a real vampire book. You just don’t get it,” I responded, indignant.
“We’ll see about that,” he said, standing and walking down the hallway to his bedroom.
I set my book on the coffee table, knowing Dad was about to launch into one of his crusades and I would not be reading my new book any time soon. He emerged seconds later, a worn, brown book in his left hand. He tossed it on the coffee table with a loud, thump. The golden lettering on the front read, “Interview with a Vampire by Anne Rice.”
I picked up the bulky novel, turning it in my hands. Stains covered the front and the pages had a brown tint at the edges, showing the book’s age.
“That,” Dad began, “is a real vampire book. She’s an amazing writer. I read all her books when I was your age. And, this is a series! The second book is definitely the best, but you have to start here.”
I stared at the book on the table, knowing Dad wasn’t going to let this go. He often “locked on” to things. Once, he heard something on the radio from his childhood and we drove for hours, looking in every music store in town for the CD until Ray Bolt played through his truck speakers and tears of frustration slid down my face. It didn’t matter if I wasn’t interested. It didn’t matter if I was doing something else. A good daughter would want to experience the things her dad loved. Guilt was my father’s second drug of choice.
“Uhm, I’ll start it after I finish this series if that’s okay?” My father’s eyes darkened as he glanced at the books on the table and back to me. His jaw tensed, a telltale sign of his anger boiling. Without a word, he stood, snatching his book off the table and retreating down the hall. His slammed his door heavily, the frame rattling. Slowly, silently, I lifted my new book off the table, tiptoeing to my room and praying he’d stew rather than explode.
The Face—Dean Koontz, published in 2003
I was sixteen the last time Dad and I went to Texas for Thanksgiving. Our extended family was massive, with most living in the Lone Star state, so we’d occasionally make the trip down from Oklahoma City for my great-grandmother’s rolls and Dallas Cowboys football. We had never been big into Christmas shopping on Thanksgiving but that year had been rough. Dad’s stint at the sober-house had ended, so he was back with Meme and me. Sober living proved to be much harder when given total freedom, and Dad’s sobriety had been through the ringer, as had our relationship. We took the trip down, hoping to mend some things that had broken between us.
The house (which was technically a trailer) was packed to the brim with Johnsons. Children with marshmallow on their hands screeched through the living room in droves while old men chain-smoked hand-rolled cigarettes on the patio and ladies with cross necklaces kneaded dough in the tiny kitchen. Moving from one room to the next felt like standing against the rails at a rock concert: cramped and loud.
As we silently sat on couches that didn’t belong to us, Dad, who had previously been scrolling through his phone, abruptly stood, proclaiming, “C’mon kid. We’re busting out.”
I stood slowly, hesitantly. “Where are we going?” I asked, slinging my purse onto my shoulder.
“Sale at Hastings. Ten used books for twenty bucks.” He knew I couldn’t resist a trip to Hastings. I had brought two books for the ride and had finished them both on the first day. I needed new material and he knew it.
The drive to Hastings was silent save for the soft sounds of Def Leppard coming from the speakers. The parking lot was surprisingly empty, most likely due to it being 5 p.m. on Thanksgiving Day. We walked through the automatic double doors, said a friendly “Hello” to the teenaged cashier and headed for the used books.
“Alright. You get five and I get five,” Dad adjusted the University of Oklahoma ball cap on his head, his deep brown eyes scanning the store. “We’ll meet back here in thirty.” With that, he headed to Sci-Fi, leaving me to peruse alone. I decided on Mysteries, quickly finding five Christies and Stouts to take home. I found Dad squatted in Horror, his left arm cradling four novels and his right hand skimming along the spines of the books on the bottom row. Dad looked up at me as I approached and motioned to the shelf in front of him.
“I just can’t decide,” he said, looking back to the bottom row. “There’s a few I’m wanting so it’s hard to narrow it down.”
“I could pick one for you,” I replied, my eyes now scanning the books in front of us. He stood up, a pop emitting from his left knee.
He glanced at the books I’d chosen before saying, “Be my guest.”
As I looked for my selection, a blue spine with a Frankenstein-esque apple below the text caught my eye. I pulled the large novel from the shelf and a humanoid face stared back at me. The Face. I showed it to Dad, having heard him talk about Dean Koontz before. He briefly glanced at the inside cover before nodding his head.
“Alright,” he said, adding the book to his pile. “The Face it is. Ready, Freddy?”
We headed to the checkout, my books first on the belt followed by his own. The cashier scanned them all absentmindedly, tossing them into a green plastic bag, the corners of the books threatening to rip themselves free. Koontz was the last across the scanner. I thought I’d chosen well. If I’d known that book would be the last my father would read, I might’ve tried to find something better.
I’ve finally agreed to get rid of some of my books. After my boyfriend and I moved in together my junior year of undergrad, the volume of books I owned quickly ballooned. Novels required for class combined with library book sales and a soft spot for independent bookstores has left my two oak bookcases sagging from the weight. I’ve hinted at buying a third, but my request was promptly denied. So now I’m sitting on the living room floor sorting those that didn’t make the cut for one reason or another.
“Alright, let’s see.” Matt starts with the bookshelf closest to the front door while I work on the one in the corner. Piles of donations spot the living room. I’m currently looking through the s’s.
“Do you want… A book of recipes for drunk people?” Matt asks, shaking his head at my weird assortment.
“I think I’m good, actually,” I reply, tossing my dust jacket-less Shel Silverstein’s into the donation box. On the couch, our dogs sigh loudly, glancing hopefully at the leashes hanging by the door.
“What about. . . OK, so it looks like this bottom shelf is out of alphabetical order.” Matt crouches on the floor, scanning the titles along the final shelf. Dad’s shelf.
“Anne Rice, huh, Babe? I didn’t even know you had this.” Matt pulls the old brown book out carefully, flipping through the pages.
“They’re all my Dad’s.” I join him on the floor, pulling out The Face, naked without its jacket. King and Rice and Koontz sit solemnly on my shelves, still unread. Countless times I have pulled each out, taken them to coffee shops and bars, steeled myself to read what Dad read, see what Dad saw. But what is a book club with only one member? How do you discuss texts with the dead? Will the impact remain the same if my motivation for reading them no longer exists?
“Do you want to keep them?” He knows the answer but asks anyway. Our apartment is sprawling with my father. His elephant wine holder. His tiny medieval chair. His picture on the bookshelf. I push the books back into their place without answering, knowing Matt will understand. We finish out our shelves quickly, boxing up all our giveaways and lugging them to the car. The ride to Goodwill is silent, save for the Def Leppard playing softly on the radio.
Kourtney Johnson is currently a senior English Literature undergraduate at Oklahoma State University. This is her publication. After receiving her Bachelors in May, she will begin her MFA in Creative Nonfiction Writing at Oklahoma State. She enjoys black coffee, hoarding books, and her dogs, Bella and Hawk.