Of all the things an old man might collect, my father has been stockpiling soap. At first I pretend not to notice, tell myself he’s only trying to wash away the sickness that took Mama last year. He hands me two more bars of Ivory.
I thought you used Irish Spring? I say. Or Dial?
My bones still work, you know, he says.
It’s true: the deterioration is not in his joints or muscles or cartilage. He could kneel here on the floor if I’d let him, but I open the cabinet beneath the bathroom sink and add to his existing inventory, as if these stacks are not already teetering off-balance, as if thirty-three bars of soap is precisely the right amount for someone who often forgets his daily shower.
On the afternoon his license is revoked, I cradle him the way he cradled me when I was tiny and feverish. I bring him warmed milk in his favorite mug. I promise that from now on I will do his grocery shopping before my weekly visits, no problem, and he gives me a handwritten list, his penmanship still fluid and smooth.
orange juice, extra pulp
Ivory x 2
Ivory x 2
Ivory x 2
His brain trips sometimes, snags like Mama’s gown on those jagged rocks, a memory he repeats each Sunday over dinner as if it is the only story he knows: the white froth of her dress caught fast between the crags as they posed for pictures, the foam tugging at its tulle like children, insistent, until one bare foot slipped and sent her sliding into the sea, and the thrashing, the thrashing, so he crashed in after her and scooped her up and held her against his chest, safe. He still talks about the starfish, the way they wove themselves into her hair all spikes and slime and arms. There were dozens of them, he always says, dozens—though in the photo there is just one, tangled near her veil. The picture hangs in a heavy frame beside his bed, a terrible and triumphant memory enlarged.
I purchase only two bars, and when I pull them from the paper bag and start to put them away, he says, Where’s the rest?
The following week, I lie: All sold out, Dad, sorry. The week after that, I ask: Don’t you think you have enough for now?
I tell him, You’re clean.
I tell him, She wasn’t contagious.
Even after I quietly stop buying them, small rectangular boxes continue to multiply beneath his sink in toppling towers, solid soap bodies loose and rattling inside the cardboard. They pile high beside the locked armoire upstairs, spill into other cabinets, drawers, linen closets, bookshelves, the space under the bed. They gather on his front stoop like silent mourners. Like voyeurs. Neighbors drop them off by the bagful, happy to help, and each week I sneak some from his house and deposit them in the donation bin down the street.
My father cries out while I am in his kitchen chopping garlic. Glass shatters, and my knife slips. I find him kneeling on his bedroom floor surrounded by glittering shards, some like shark teeth and some like dust, blood speckling his limbs.
It was crooked, he says. I was just trying to fix it.
With one finger, he traces the edge of Mama’s cheek, smears the photo red. He blinks—I imagine the intermittent darkness shimmering through his mind like scales, and then he gently takes my hand to examine the sliced knuckle, gaping and raw. You’re the one who’s hurt, I say, but he leaves for the bathroom, where he will rummage through each jumbled drawer to find his favorite items of repair: gauze, bandages, yellowed medical tape, an aging bottle of antiseptic, some Porter’s Salve. While he is gone I try to memorize my father’s space so it might burrow under my ribs. The dusty lamp, the textured rug, the afghan at the foot of the bed that still smells of Mama’s Chantilly perfume.
The armoire in the corner stands ajar. Automatically, I rise to shut its doors, and from inside there is a scent both creamy and sharp—I can hardly bring myself to look because I know it must be more soap, more soap, and it is, only this soap is unboxed: rows and rows of the same beautiful Ivory figurine, two carved bodies entwined as one, his arms, her ripped white hem, their featureless faces bent together again and again and again. The shelves are filled with them.
By the time my father returns carrying his supplies, the armoire is closed. He sits beside me and doesn’t speak, so I do: I’m sorry I didn’t get everything on your list, I tell him. I’ll remember next time, okay? Next time I will.
Still no answer. I wonder if he has forgotten what he meant to do. But then he soaks a cotton ball with rubbing alcohol and presses it to my wound.
They were caught in her hair, he says, as if he’d been in the middle of a story, Dozens of them. Did you know they can regenerate? That they can lose a part of themselves and grow a brand new limb?
Sometimes a whole new body, he will say next, and I will pretend I’ve never heard this before and let him scrub my skin with anything that heals as it burns.
Photo by kyle magowan on Unsplash