For ten smoky, stainless steel minutes once a month I got to talk to my father. The minutes started out deadly long, like a session under a dentist’s drill, then seemed to end as quick as breath: the two blue-clothed guards taking him away, a hand on each elbow, the man who had just convinced me, one more time, to call him Dad.
Before the next month was up, I would forget his face, forget almost that he was really my father.
What I always remembered, though, were the three vertical metal bars that ran from the ceiling to the counter between us. They were painted with a thick gray paint, nicked and flaking.
From where I sat, Dad’s face fit just between the outer two bars, with one single bar between, so that if I wanted to look at both of his eyes, he had no nose, and if Iwanted to see his nose, he lost one eye. No matter how long I sat there looking at him, there was always something missing.
I was young—seven, then eight, then nine, then ten—and I barely knew what to say to him, how to tell him about my life in less time than it took for Mom and I to drive out to that place from home.
Once, to end an uncomfortable silence, I asked him why he was called a convict. I had heard two kids say the word on the playground the week before, and I knew they were talking about my father.
“You know why they call us that, don’t you?” he said, his eyes shiny beneath his yellowed skin. “They call us that ‘cause we have convictions,” he said.
Dad’s voice was naturally deep, gravelly, but he tried to smile it up for me, so it was never quite serious, never quite his own. I didn’t know whether to believe him or not. I looked at both his eyes, then shifted in my seat and looked at the center of his face. His left eye disappeared, then his right.
“We believe in something,” he said in his half-raised voice. The guards appeared at his chair then, about to take him away again. He stood up, as straight as he could.
“I believe,” he said, then disappeared.
–originally published in Story Quarterly