Her Father's Jacket
By Katlyn Slough
As they walked in the park, Madeline’s father pulled several pieces of bread from his pocket. He fumbled them through the coarse fabric of his gloves. Madeline reached her hands up to him like claws, and he placed one of the slices into the waiting fingers. She broke up the crust into bite-size pieces. She threw them to the ducks. Every third piece or so, Madeline popped a piece into her own mouth, and she quacked. Her father laughed at this every time, and then handed her another piece of bread.
It was a cold day. Madeline wore layers that buried her small frame, a motley of colors and fabrics haphazardly thrown over growing bones. Her father wore the only jacket he has ever worn: long, and a rich, dark green of thick wool, with two pockets for his hands, each closed with a black button. Madeline found something remarkable and mysterious about this jacket, about the way that the threads frayed at the seams but her father still wore it, and about the way that he kept his hands in one of the pockets, sometimes even up to his elbow. These pockets were bulging and lumpy, at once large while the proportions were small, and something about them made Madeline’s eyes cross and refocus.
She did not look now. Instead, she looked at floating sheets of ice that peppered the pond, spinning in place, and the ducks that dodged them and kicked them away. Madeline saw her breath, and blew it forcefully out of her nose, like a dragon. If she did this enough, she could convince her father to get hot chocolate and popcorn from the street stands on the way home.
“Madeline,” her father said, handing her another piece of bread. She pressed this one to her face, where it absorbed the thin stream of snot creeping along her upper lip. She lifted her face to the sky, giggling. “Maddie,” her father said again. “What do you think of me and your mother?”
Madeline didn’t know what to say to that question. She broke up the bread and threw it in the water, avoiding eye contact. Her father didn’t repeat himself. Instead, he reached into a pocket. He produced a woolen blue hat with a pom pom on top and squeezed it over her head. She must have been getting pink ears. She scratched at it, but her gloves intensified the itch.
Then Madeline’s father lit a cigar and sucked on the end. Madeline coughed, exaggerated. She knew smoking wasn’t good. Her mother reminded her father every time she saw him. Madeline’s father tapped her on the back. The ducks ate their fill and floated lazily in the steam coming off the pond. Madeline swung her feet in the air and projected herself forward to the ground.
“What do you need?” her father asked. From his pocket he drew a set of blowable balloons, and the plastic pump soon after. “Balloon animals?”
Madeline wasn’t interested. She swung her feet harder, rocking on her hands.
“Hey, hey,” her father said, tucking the balloons away again. “I have a bunch of books, too. Or we could color? I got some new markers that you might like. What do you want to do, little duck?” With each suggestion, he pulled the items from his pockets, as though the array would keep her focus.
Madeline jumped from the bench and landed superhero-style, feet set wide and a fist on the ground.
Her father was already putting away the items again. “Don’t go too far,” he said.
She skipped over to the edge of the tree line, the wilderness around the bottom of trees. The mosses and the gnarled roots, the unexpected budding flowers. She brushed the snow away from their heads and exposed the fading stems. The yellow ones were her favorite, spots of sunshine in a wash of white. Madeline pulled these out at the root and held them aloft for a moment before she stuffed them in her pocket. The white flowers followed. Madeline couldn’t abandon them there.
Her father stared up at the sky, his hands spread out on either side of him, palms up, as though welcoming a sort of judgement.
Madeline presented her father with the flowers, and he kissed her on the head. He pulled a plastic vase from his pocket then, dipped it into the water, and put the bundle of flowers inside. Madeline pushed them down until they touched the water, even though the heads dipped past the lip. Her father tucked the whole thing away again.
“Where does it go?” Madeline said.
“Where they all go,” he said, and he winked at her, and he produced a puff of confetti that he blew over her head.
As they walked home, Madeline begged for her expected treats. Her father reached into his pocket and, careful not to spill, handed her a paper bag of popcorn and a styrofoam cup. Madeline was afraid the hot chocolate would be cold--who knew how long her father had kept them there--but the chocolate steamed, and the popcorn left buttery streaks on her fingers. Madeline sat on the train beside her father munching happily. He stared at the hairs sprouting between the knuckles on his old fingers.
“Madeline,” he said, slowly. “I know this must be hard on you, with your mother and I going back and forth like this.”
Madeline tried to pretend that she couldn’t hear him over the squealing and jerking of the train, over the clatter of the track, over the crunching filling her own ears, but her father was smarter than that. He took the popcorn from her and returned it, waited until she looked up. Madeline twisted her face into the most sullen expression she could muster.
“I want to see you,” he said. “Don’t ever think that I don’t want to see you.”
Madeline’s father’s face had hard lines and deep creases from narrowing his eyebrows so much. The corners of his mouth had their own pockets where the skin twisted. “I don’t think that.”
“No?” His words were eager. “You trust me?” He reached an arm around her shoulder, trying to pull her closer to him, but Madeline didn’t budge.
Divorce was a weird, floating word she had only heard at dinner parties. The ladies, standing in the kitchen, her mother among them, debated who was divorcing who this week, and what it meant for the children and for the dogs. “Very sad, very sad,” they’d say. “I guess they just couldn’t make it work.” When Madeline’s parents started their divorce, though, no one was talking about it. She was ushered from the room during those sorts of parties.
There was something that Madeline didn’t understand creeping in the corner of her brain, something worming its way up to her mouth. A question never answered. “When are you coming home, Daddy?”
“Ah, little duck,” her father said. “That’s hard to explain.”
“Like your jacket?”
“Yes, Madeline. Like my jacket.”
Madeline waited for him to explain it anyway, but he didn’t start to, and the train kept moving her forward.
Her mother’s house was unexceptionally familiar. Simple wood front door with stained glass windows, pale yellow siding with white shutters, a twenty-foot square for a front lawn. A silent neighborhood, hesitant to intrude. Madeline’s father said goodbye in the car because he anticipated something happening at the front door. “Your mother is unpredictable,” he told her. “Better get my kiss in now. Got one for your dad?”
Madeline planted a kiss on his cheek, and he put one back on hers.
“Alright, little duck. Let’s get you inside.”
Madeline didn’t move at first. Her father needed to take her by the hand up the driveway. Her father used to park his car in front of her mother’s, so he could leave before her in the morning. Now, her mother parked at the end of the driveway anyway, out of spite. Madeline tapped her hand on the doors as she went past, her reflection a warped bubble.
Her mother must have been waiting at the door to launch her surprise.
“You are not on time,” her mother said. She wore the stretch pants that she did yoga in, and a t-shirt cut at the neck and stomach, revealing the soft skin underneath.
“Mommy!” Madeline said, and wrapped her mother’s leg in a bear hug, where she stayed. Her mother patted her on the head.
“I’m on time,” her father said. He teetered on the porch, looking past my mother, into the house he deserted only a scant few months ago. “She’s home for dinner.”
“And no doubt full of snacks.”
“Do you expect me not to feed her?”
Madeline’s mother turned to her daughter. “Well, Madeline? What did he give you today?”
Madeline shrugged. “Bread,” she said at last. As an afterthought, she wiped the top of her mouth with the back of her hand.
“We were feeding the ducks,” her father said. He squatted down to Madeline’s level, winked at her. His smile was wide and sad. “You like the ducks, right, Madeline?”
Madeline nodded her head. Her cheek rubbed against the spandex on her mother’s legs.
“It’s freezing out,” her mother tried again. “And you take her into the city?”
“I kept her warm, too,” her father answered. “Right, Madeline? You like your new hat?”
They stood in silence for a few moments. Madeline released her mother’s leg and started peeling off her outside clothes. The gloves first, which she laid down on top of her shoes in the doorway. Her mother still held open the door, and she watched every move Madeline’s father made. They seemed to be in a competition, seeing who would flinch first. When Madeline pulled off her hat from the top of her head, stopping to squeeze the pom pom on top, she handed it back to her father. Her father returned it to his pocket’s unknown depths.
“Could I come in?” her father asked. “I want to talk about some things with you.”
“I don’t think that’s a good idea.”
“I’m not inviting myself over for dinner, or anything,” her father continued. “Just a chat for a minute. Not trying to interrupt your routine or anything either. I just thought, I mean--I had some thoughts.”
“Tonight isn’t a good night,” Madeline’s mother said firmly.
Madeline could see the sadness slashed across her father’s face. “Daddy can stay for dinner?” she asked.
“Not tonight, Madeline,” her mother said.
Madeline’s father just nodded his head. “Another night, then, maybe. Come here, Madeline, say goodbye.”
Her mother stopped her again with a hand on her shoulder, her fingernails gripping like knives. Madeline wrenched away and ran into her father’s arms.
He didn’t let go. “When do I get to see her, then?” Her father spoke in his angry voice, and Madeline pressed her ear against the side of his head. She could hear the blood pulsing through his temples, hard and heavy.
“We’re not talking about this now,” her mother said. “Not in front of Maddie.”
Her father opened his mouth, like he was about to speak. Then he peeled away from his daughter. His eyes were wide, and bright, and she smiled.
“Little duck,” he said. “Don’t forget your flowers.” He took the vase from his pocket and handed it to Madeline. Madeline held it cautiously.
“Do I fit in your pocket?” she asked him.
“Jesus Christ, Madeline,” her mother said. “It’s not magic.”
Her father ignored her mother. “You wouldn’t fit in here. Not this time.” With a final kiss on the forehead, he stood up. “I’ll call you to say goodnight, Maddie. I’ll see you soon.”
“Now that’s something we should talk about,” her mother said. She ushered Madeline back inside and closed the door. Madeline watched her father leave through the window, her nose pressed against the glass, until his car disappeared from view down the side streets.
Madeline’s father had tried his best to explain it. “Sometimes, love changes,” he said. They were walking down the city street. His pockets were bulky with the new books they had just chosen from the used bookstore, and each step wafted up a hint of musk. He held her hand in his and she felt protected by it, guided, through the chatter of strangers and the complaints of distant cars. “There’s no reason for it, no way to predict it. Your mother and I love each other. When we first met--”
“Yes, before you. Our love was passionate and we made a lot of promises. And when things settled down we couldn’t keep some of those promises. Mommy didn’t want to accept that.”
Madeline tried to calculate in her head, deciding what it meant that her father broke a promise. She knew not to break promises. Her father must have seen the desperation blatant on her face.
“It’s not you, Madeline.” He touched my cheek. “I hope you believe me.”
She started to protest. She asked a lot of questions. She tried to understand, as best as she could, why two people would ever decide to give each other up.
“I promise I’ll tell you as soon as you’ll understand.”
“Like your jacket?”
“Yes, Madeline. Like my jacket.”
Madeline wasn’t convinced.
That night, Madeline chewed the corners of her pillows as her mother tucked her into bed. She didn’t know, exactly, what fueled her unease, but it felt bottomless. “Mommy,” she said. “Do you love Daddy very much?”
Her mother paused, her shoulders tightening. “He made his choice, Madeline.”
Then her mother closed the door.
If Madeline buried her head in her blankets and closed her eyes, she could smell the musty cigar-smoke smell of her father’s jacket. She imagined that it covered her, that she reached her arms down the sleeves and into the pockets on the other side. There, she could touch the magic, where her father hid everything in the world.