FaceMy first memory fails me.  Brown shag carpet.  I am in the living room.  My mother is watching the end of Hill Street Blues on a color television.  She lights a cigarette.  Smoke rises, spiraling toward the ceiling.  When her show is over, an orange racecar with a Confederate flag painted over the top jumps into the air.  When it reaches the peak of its vertical climb, my mother turns off the television, stubs out her cigarette.  I cannot see my father, though I know that they are not yet divorced.

No.  This is not my first memory.  I’m in the back seat of my parents’ car.  My father is driving my mother to work.  We live in Seattle.  It must be raining.  Yes, I can see it now.  It is raining.  Small beads of water stick to the glass of the windows.  My father looks at me in the rearview mirror.  He is smiling.  I see a sign for Pizza Hut.  No, not tonight, they tell me.  We drop off my mother.  I imagine my father kisses her before she takes the bus to work.

No.  We are driving.  I am sitting in the back seat.  My mother is smoking.  When she notices I am watching her, she blows out small rings that rise toward the windshield.  We live in Seattle.  It is definitely raining.  I hum a song while tracing the beads of water with my fingers, trying to connect them.  I make images.  My father smiles at my mother when she asks me what I’m singing.  Hill Street Blues.

We do not live in Seattle.  My mother and father are fighting in their bedroom in Great Falls, Montana.  My mother opens a package of cigarettes, and the clear cellophane tears around the box and spills out over their bed.  My father seems gentle.  He is pleading with her.  My mother screams.  She screams so loud my chest hurts.  She leaves the room and I hear the front door slam.  My father carries me in his arms.  We lie in bed watching television.  The glow flashes a prism across our faces.

My father and I are alone.  This cannot be my first memory, but I remember it clearly.  The television is off.  We kneel on the soft blue carpet at the edge of his bed, praying for a mother.  Not my mother, who I seem to have forgotten, but someone who will take care of my father.  I close my eyes as hard as I can while he asks God for the woman he works with at my grandparents’ department store.  I notice the smell of my father’s deodorant, feel the warmth of his body.  His stubbled face grazes me.  I close my eyes harder.  My mother is gone. I imagine a cigarette, smoke rings expanding as they rise higher and higher.  Higher, I think, than I’ll ever be able to reach.  I try to remember what she looks like.  I press my hands together.  I pray.  I’m afraid if I don’t concentrate, I’ll forget.

Bryan Fry is a husband and father of three children.  He earned his MFA in Creative Writing from the University of Idaho and is currently the co-editor of the online literary journal Blood Orange Review.  “Hill Street Blues” is the opening essay in the presently unpublished collection entitled Between Here and There, a personal narrative of being raised in Montana by a single father.  He lives in Pullman, WA.

photo by Kristin Fouquet