The Pamphlet

“Although our father Gary was a closed, unknown donor when he was alive, he agreed to the terms.”

T Kira Madden
Oct 24, 2018 · 11 min read
Illustration: Max Loeffler

Our father’s name was Gary, so we’ve been told. A man of generally good health, mild allergies, a pleasing disposition. He was half Caucasian and half Polynesian, though we do not know any exactitudes, any pinpoints on a map; we do not know the way his tongue may have rolled around words. Gary. Survived by two younger sisters, ages 36 and 40. Gary would have turned 47 this year had he lived, but he did not. Soon, we will meet him. These are the facts of The Pamphlet — the only father facts listed — and we do not challenge them.

Things Gary may have passed on to us: ears, for one. They must be his. My mother’s ears and her mother’s ears and her mother’s mother’s ears are all round, crinkled as fiddlehead ferns, attached at the earlobes. But my ears are angular, pointed. The skin folds over at the tops of both my left and right, and my mother jokes that this is the doctor’s fault, that he yanked me right out of her, pinching. Other possibilities from Gary: a lousy right hip that pop-pops in the winter, a mustache I have to bleach twice a month, a blistering red on my cheeks induced by alcohol, the sharp and distinguished way I pronounce the Ts in words like “button,” “cotton,” “Manhattan,” foot bunions, canker sores, an unappeasable desperation for money (because why else? Why else would father Gary have done it?), and maybe, just maybe, a deep love of canned tomato juice, which I have never traced back on my mother’s side, but perhaps this is a quality that begins and ends with me.

I wonder if the others are the same. Pinched ears. Button.

I wish we could each add to The Pamphlet, make a chain letter out of it.

Total facts known, and unknown, about our father.

“This hotel is run by Hawaiians,” reads The Pamphlet, “to celebrate your Polynesian heritage!” Nevada pinkens to dusk as my mother drops me at the Las Vegas hotel, which does not look particularly Hawaiian or un-Hawaiian from the outside. We’ve been driving all day, and now my mother is squeezing nasal spray up her nostrils, crying. “It’s time,” she says, “to ask after the personal. It’s time for your answers.” She must have gotten high in a rest stop somewhere along the way. She has never seemed sensitive about Gary or The Pamphlet before.

“Something from you first,” I ask. “Why’d you choose him?”

“I liked his name,” she says. “Like ‘scary’ but sweeter sounding.”

When I accept this answer as the best I will get, I kiss her on the temple and swing on my book sack full of clothes and make my way to the hotel entrance. “See you tomorrow.” I wave. I wonder if my mother is really upset or if it’s a put-on. She knew her father; he was not a donor; she had no pamphlet. Her life was simple in this one, elemental way.

On my hotel room bed, I kick my feet up and spend more time with The Pamphlet. The Pamphlet tells us we are Lucky. Although our father Gary was a closed, unknown donor when he was alive, he agreed to the terms. The rules go like this: After Gary kicks it, The Pamphlet would be sent, by mail, to all of his offspring — us. Time and place for the “Who’s Your Daddy?” gathering: determined by the total facts known about the Father. When we meet father Gary, we will be allowed our One Question. This information is written in blue ink on a white sticker, crookedly smacked onto the back of The Pamphlet.

My younger brother Wilkins got his pamphlet four years ago. His father’s name, he was told, was Buck. When he was alive, Buck worked as a rancher, a white man with diabetes, and so my brother followed The Pamphlet all the way to Love Valley, North Carolina, where he and eight other brothers and sisters shook hands and cried a little and said giddyup on rental mares, malnourished beasts, a filly with one eye. Wilkins and his brothers and sisters sipped beers at a saloon as they waited for Buck and discussed their separate lives and traits, until one woman, a woman named Desadora, ruined the mood by saying she was a real-deal psychic, and she’d had the tingle in her that told her daddy Buck wasn’t even dead yet. Maybe it was the beers that did it. Maybe they were all anxious at the situation. But my brother and his new siblings got tired and made their ways back home without their One Questions answered. Wilkins has kept in touch with exactly none of his Buck-bred siblings.

We of our father Gary, we of The Pamphlet, have not been allowed to contact one another before the “Who’s Your Daddy?” gathering. There would have been no way for us to find one another, and anyway, there’d be no guessing how many of us there could be.

I wear a Hawaiian shirt for the occasion. It’s a purple flowered thing, unbuttoned enough for a little cleavage. The hotel soap has me smelling not myself, and I hope this doesn’t give off the wrong impression to the others. I wonder if we will know each other by whiff the way animals do. Our blood apparent like that.

In the bathroom mirror, I push my hair behind mine and Gary’s ears. It’s a brownish-reddish color, like a torn scab. I am fair-skinned and not entirely bad-looking, though I do not look Hawaiian in any way that I’ve seen on postcards or films. I do not have hula hips or coconut breasts. No dark, jeweled eyes. I do not know what other kinds of people make up Polynesia, but I doubt I look like them, either.

As I walk through the hotel, casino smoke hovers like radioactive dust. Cocktail waitresses in light-up leis move around the green felt tables and the slot machines, and they look at me like Are you old enough to be here? Or maybe it’s Are you Hawaiian? But that could be wishful thinking. I am 26 but childish in both my posture and face — small, nubby teeth; white rings around my eyeballs that keep me surprised-looking — and I’d challenge a waitress to ask me for ID just to prove them wrong if I didn’t get the alcohol rash.

I follow signs cut from construction paper through the casino and down a couple palm-frond-wallpapered halls. One escalator. “Who’s Your Daddy? Find Out!” The arrows coax me on. I wish Wilkins could be here with me, but that wouldn’t be allowed on account of his own pamphlet. Still, he’d be someone friendly, a balm, a person to remind me that I exist and am regarded as a good person regardless of daddy, dead daddy, no daddy at all.

What I mean to say when I say that it’s weird meeting your daddy when he’s already dead in front of a roomful of half-siblings playing ukuleles and squeezing out tears is that, it’s weird but it’s also very sad. I didn’t expect to feel this way. I didn’t expect to pick up my own party-favor ukulele and splay my fingers all over the nylon strings like I might magically know how to play it, like something solemn and blue might come out.

Our father Gary is sitting on a stage at the west end of this hotel ballroom, all jelly-like and dead-looking and a bit cartoonish. I’m relieved he showed up. I can’t see his face clearly from here. He’s plopped on a wooden throne chair with two tiki torches on either side of him, talking to each sibling as they line up and make their way up the stairs and over to him. A Pamphlet security person stands behind him in sunglasses. It’s all a bit dramatic. There are 60, maybe 70 of us, waiting.

The room is dimly lit, with papier-mâché pineapples and coconuts hanging from the ceiling on fishing line, leaning as centerpieces on the tables. I wonder who made all these decorations—his two sisters? Those of The Pamphlet?—and I feel a bit left out of the process. I’d have liked to have volunteered for this job: molding my hands over the wet newspapers; choosing the perfect music; carefully placing the name tags on a table, alphabetically, laminated and shining—Hello, I am clearly your most responsible child. I’d have liked that.

I join the end of the line, unsure of what to do with my body, my hands. I don’t have a bag or purse with which to fiddle. The Pamphlet is clear: No cameras, no gifts, no phones, no pens or autographs. I clear my throat so the woman standing in front of me might turn, notice. She does.

“Hi,” I say. “Sister.”

“Hi, sister,” she says, smiling.

This woman does not resemble me at all, though I am studying. Her hair is coarse and short and spiky, the brown of a lawn in winter. I look at her ears — round — nothing. Silver rings on every finger. I feel hot for this woman, and I wonder if it’s some sort of genetic pull, a biological fire.

“Pizza’s over there,” she says, pointing to a table. My sister has a slice of pineapple on a paper plate in her hand. No bite marks to it yet.

“I think I’ll wait,” I say. “Don’t want to lose my place.”

“Do you know what you’ll ask him yet?” My sister wants to know. I’ve been too wired up to even think about it.

“What’s your name?” I say to her. Her teeth are crooked and sharp. She, too, is wearing a Hawaiian shirt that fits loose but boxy at the shoulders.

“Maxine, but I go by Max,” she says.

If I kissed my sister, if my sister pushed me into a maintenance closet by the end of the night, if we studied one another’s bodies by feel alone — we’ve got the same hip bones, different ankles — would that be so wrong? Would it complicate things?

“Wish we could have brought our husbands tonight,” Max says. “You know?”

“Oh, sure,” I go. “Yeah.”

The line ticks on and we keep up talking. Favorite foods? Allergies? Where do you live? Have you ever felt a connection to Polynesian culture? When did your pamphlet arrive? God? Beneath Elvis’ Blue Hawaii record, we occasionally hear bursts of sobbing. Siblings swing in and out of the doors, faces in their hands. It occurs to me that this is an Emotional Experience.

“Well, wish me luck!” Max says. We’ve reached the stage. She breathes out a meditative one-two-three breath with her eyes closed, and I reach for her shoulder like, “There, there,” patting. I feel stupid when I do this and drop my hand. “Good luck!” I say.

I watch Max as she works up those stairs. She goes quickly, as if she might otherwise lose the nerve. She approaches father Gary in his throne and bows, drops to her knees. She stays there, looking up at him like a little girl, and uses both hands to offer him the plate of drooping pizza as if it’s a prize. Can a dead man eat? I’m not sure, but I feel jealous of this forethought, this sincere and daughterly gesture. Father Gary’s security person nods; the pizza is okay. Max speaks, but I cannot read her lips because Elvis is going on about his rock-a-hula baby, and I wonder if father Gary also has a thump in his pants for Max, if we share the same taste. Our father’s mouth moves, and she somberly nods before exiting, stage right.

I do not move quickly up to the stage. In fact, it’s like my legs have turned all the way off; I can’t seem to find them. I slog my way up the stairs and feel, though not for the first time, small. I hadn’t thought about what father Gary might think of me. I have never been promoted at a job, never wifed, never been sent flowers or even coupons. I have never owned a dress or suit or had anyone, besides my mother, cut my hair. I wonder if father Gary might recognize my exceptional averageness. Feel shamed at what he’d made.

I stand in front of my dead father, the pizza slice in his lap. I loop my hair behind my ears and fix my posture. Up close, I do see my face in him. The tiki torches light us brightly. My father is gelatinous, transparent and purpled, trembling like molded Jell-O, but his features are clear. His ears, pointy. Looking at him feels like sliding into a seat that has just been warmed by somebody more important, now gone. I can tell he was handsome. I wish I could have seen him with skin.

“Your One Question?” asks the security. I forgot anyone was even there.

“Hi. My name is — ”

“One Question,” says the security. “No names.”

“Well, I guess,” I say, “when you made all your donations into those cups, what did you think about when you, you know, did that?”

“Is that your One Question?” security asks. “What did father Gary think about when donating himself?”

“Yes,” I nod.

My dead father jiggles a bit, as if he’s thinking. This movement makes me a little nervous. I don’t want him to tear apart, or melt, or feel angry at my question. I just want to stay here, close to him, looking.

“Also, how did you die?”

“One Question!” goes security.

“Okay, the jerk-off question.”

“Always the same thing,” my father says. His voice is my voice. Ragged, high, slow. I am meeting my father and he’s already dead and it’s too late for these sentimentals.

“Cary Grant.” A slight nod. I listen at his T.

“Cary Grant,” I say. “Okay.” I nod, too, mirroring him.

My father’s jelly appears to stretch into a smile. The smile squeaks. He smells like the sweet black face of a new trampoline. I lean in to smell him better.

“Onward,” says security.

“I love warm sheets,” I say to my father, “just out of the dryer.” He doesn’t move. There is no reaction from him at all. “I love movies with beaches because I’ve never seen one.”

Security rushes to my side and starts yanking me offstage by the elbow. I do not want to break the terms of The Pamphlet, but I want my dead father to know the things I love. I want him to know he made a girl who loves so many things. I was conceived with the dream of Cary Grant — this I now know — but I need my father to know that I love Cary Grant most in a white suit and I love bluegrass music and lightning storms and Spam.

“I love York Peppermint Patties!” I yell from the bottom of the stairs. Security digs their fingers into my arm. “I love paper cranes!” Max is looking at me, shaking her head. She’s got a new slice of pizza. A plastic lei around her neck. “I love new shoelaces!” I scream. All my siblings turn at me. My noses, my ears, my foreheads, my teeth, all together now, all disgusted. One sibling in a pink ball gown drops her ukulele.

I hear no sounds or words from my father as security keeps tugging away, but I go on screaming: “I love Christmas I love purple I love knitting needles and spiders and canned tomato juice I love driving late at night and a vacuumed carpet and biting my nails!” My own sound drones out. A new sibling steps onto the stage. Elvis is turned up. No one, not even security, is listening.

My mother told me once that, before I was born, she’d had big plans.

Writer, Photographer, Amateur Magician. Author: LONG LIVE THE TRIBE OF FATHERLESS GIRLS (2019, Bloomsbury)

Nightmare Fuel
Nightmare Fuel
Nightmare Fuel

About this Collection

Nightmare Fuel

’Tis the season. Well, not that season. It’s autumn. The air is cooling, leaves are falling, and flowers are withering. It’s the season of dead things and the day when ghosts come up to our doors and knock. These are spooky stories about sudden transformations and violent betrayals. Creeping feelings and supernatural horror. Fictional, fantastical, and mythical stories to scare you straight — or crooked.

’Tis the season. Well, not that season. It’s autumn. The air is cooling, leaves are falling, and flowers are withering. It’s the season of dead things and the day when ghosts come up to our doors and knock. These are spooky stories about sudden transformations and violent betrayals. Creeping feelings and supernatural horror. Fictional, fantastical, and mythical stories to scare you straight — or crooked.

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