It always happened the same way. Whenever his foot would cross the threshold of his apartment, moisture would bulge from the ceiling, followed by a torrential gush of rain. The temperature in his apartment would plummet, and the rain would turn to snow, sometimes hail. However, when he left the apartment, it would stop as suddenly as it had started. This first began after his wife of fifteen years, Diana, had asked for a divorce. He had been banished to Bad Dad Land, a name he had given to his apartment building where around ninety percent of its occupants were divorced fathers. It had been months of this and his daughter still hadn’t visited him. He was running out of excuses. He told Diana there were termites, then it was black mold, then there was a murder in the lobby and the whole building was an active crime scene.
His neighbors, so infatuated with their own misery, never asked why he would emerge from his tundra apartment with snowflakes peppering his mustache and eyebrows, why he would slam the door against a howling wind, teeth chattering, icicles like milky crystals affixed to his nostrils.
He had been sleeping in a tent that he had picked up from a sporting goods store since the second day of snowfall. Most of his possessions were under various blue tarps. In his tent there was a lamp, a small space heater, and a copy of The Idiot, its pages bloated and curling upward. Now, as the holidays approached, he knew eventually he would need to see his daughter. And that knowledge seemed to intensify the snowfall. With each day that passed, he felt the black pangs of anxiety pulling at him, getting more and more taut. Every ignored phone call from Diana and every wreath sloppily hung on his neighbors’ doors caused more snow to plummet from the ceiling, only to evaporate in his absence. One day after passing a deflated inflatable nativity scene, he called a priest, who offered to bless the property at an outrageous fee.
He surveyed his apartment. Piles of books, VHSs, and collectible action figures were all shoved beneath those blue tarps. He contemplated his own inner life–a life that had begun to bear a haunting resemblance to the wasten snowfield crammed into his apartment. All matters of concern hidden away, buried underneath pounds of gloomy frost.
Shivering in his tent, he remembered a moment many years ago when his daughter was just born. He was holding her. She was sleeping, but something had stirred her awake, and she slowly forced her head upwards to look at him, smiling, letting out a small coo. Her eyes were bright blue then, an uncluttered sky; in later years they would darken like a stormy sea at midnight. When she looked into his eyes, he thought he could feel her, for the first time, perceive him, a being separate from herself, not just a father, a provider of warmth and nourishment, but as a fallible creature, prone to mistake, destined, despite all efforts, for failure. As she made this discovery, white slime sputtered from her mouth and onto his jacket. The stain on his lapel formed an angel. His daughter threw up angels.
Just after climbing into his tent he heard a voice crack through the howling wind. Summoned from the raw cold and darkness, as if blooming outward and soaking through the fabric of his tent. The sound bore into his mind with a dreary clarity:
Is this not a hell of thy own creation? it asked him.
It is nearing Christmas.
And, what of your daughter? Does she mean nothing to you?
She is everything to me.
And yet you wish to abandon her?
I didn’t wish for that.
You are lying.
Is this damn snow your doing, phantom?
This snow is your doing, human. And it will only worsen, until you realize that.
So does my daughter need to be punished for my sins? Why is it that she must suffer?
Is it not you who landed yourself in this place? Years of neglect, failure to provide, and skating by. All led you to this place. Lumped together with the other skaters and failures. It must be obvious to you in some capacity. Out of all the Bad Dads, you might be the worst.
Were you there?
I’ve always been there.
And you’ve just now let yourself be known?
The voice hummed and vanished back into the night. And it was over. Through the window an eerie light splashed the apartment in yellow slashes, throwing itself onto the mounds of snow and illuminating all he wished to be buried in dark. He pulled his sleeping bag over his head and let himself fall, fall deeper still into a sleep haunted by bad spirits and saw himself swimming upwards through a thick tar pit, its surface perhaps thousands of miles above him.
The next morning he awoke in a sweat. Not because of the ghostly admonishment from the night before, but because his apartment was no longer plunged in eternal blizzard. The bitter cold that had snuck its way into every inch of his Bad Dad Land apartment was replaced with a simmering, dry heat.
He unzipped the tent and scanned the room before him. The piles of white snow were now instead a dismal gray. Flakes of ash smothered everything. They lazily careened to and fro from the ceiling, lightly dusting his apartment in grime. Every time he inhaled he felt a rush of ash sucked down his throat, coating it in a dry filth.
He scrambled for the door of his apartment, opened it, and stepped out, hoping that when he returned so would the snow. But for every time he tried, he was greeted by a new malady: a swarm of locusts, then a storm of glass, then a cyclone of sand. He tried to clear his mind, believing that perhaps his psyche and his anxieties were summoning these plagues, for that seemed to be the most literary explanation. And when he opened the door again, the air inside was still–the apartment now in a weird hush. It seemed his problem had been fixed.
But what he saw was no longer his apartment. Gone was the tent, the tarps, the unpacked boxes stuffed with action figures, VHSs, books. Instead what was spread out before him was a yuletide scene of his past: a green plastic christmas tree that had been in constant reuse since the mid-eighties, four embroidered stockings hung over the hearth (bearing the initials of himself, his wife, his daughter and his old retriever), and below a dim fire crackled, in need of stoking. He heard an electronic choo choo and watched as a small toy train slowly traveled towards his feet and stopped short of his boots. All was bathed in the warm glow of dollar-store Christmas lights. And although the image before him brought with it a sense of wellbeing, what came with that wellbeing was a deep, nostalgic sadness. And just as the weight of the sadness surged to the forefront of his mind, he watched as tons of snow billowed from his ceiling and buried the memory in blighted white.
At a payphone, he told Diana that it was impossible to have his daughter over for Christmas. That he couldn’t expose her to the misery of that apartment complex. That he was sure some of his neighbors were real life pedophiles. She told him he had to. She was going to Mexico with her sisters and that he needed to suck it up and be a father. Her words, exactly: be a father, for once. And with that statement, he relented. He realized that he still hadn’t gone Christmas shopping. He asked Diana what his daughter ‘was into’ these days and she sighed and told him to just buy a popular CD or some fantasy book. She’s not very materialistic. Her words.
He drove down to Barnes and Noble. Outside the windshield poplar trees lined the freeway and the sky was a gray husk. Slivers of stratus clouds streaked the air above him and he could feel all the vestiges of uneasiness leaving him, peeling themselves from his spirit and floating upward into the bitter realm where such unpleasant and temporal feelings belong, (where also the banished souls of the damned no doubt reside). Telephone towers sprung from the earth like the ribcage of some great and defeated metal beast, and even as rain began to splinter his windshield, he remained calm. As the drive continued, he felt the season’s grip wrap its icy fingers around him and he turned on his seat warmer, and then the radio. He twisted the dial until the familiar sound of holiday hits flowed through his speakers. Whatever his apartment looked like now was of no concern to him.
As he rode up Barnes and Noble’s escalator to the second floor where they kept the CDs he grimaced at the Christmas decor, but shook it off. It was important his resolve did not falter. He walked over toward a table with various kick-knacks and spotted a snowglobe. He held it to his face, careful not to shake it and disturb the fake snow inside. The globe depicted a family scene. A plastic father, holding a plastic baby while a plastic wife dutifully attended the kitchen; even a plastic puppy lapping at a plastic water bowl. And although the scene did its best to disturb him, he felt a sense of clarity and serenity, and while getting reacquainted with this feeling he had an idea.
He picked up his daughter Christmas morning. She was dressed in a checkered skort and yellow polo shirt. Diana waved to him quickly and then hurried back inside the house. When she climbed into the car he presented her a small ball wrapped in crinkled printer paper. This is your first present, he said, and then apologized for the wrapping job. She opened it carefully and cupped the snowglobe in her hands.
That’s you, he said, gesturing to the plastic baby, and that’s me holding you.
I’m not a baby, she replied.
But you were once, he said.
In Mexico, he said.
Well, thank you Dad, she said, and she meant it.
That’s part one, he said.
Climbing up the stairs to his unit, he felt wracked with anxiety, but kept a resolute demeanor. Visions of locusts and sandstorms blazed through his head. He discarded the thoughts knowing that perhaps they would manifest and ruin everything. Now, approaching the door, he slid his hand against the cool metal and pressed his ear against the wood, fearful that he would hear the buzzing of insects, howling wind, or bubbling lava, but there was nothing.
And he entered his apartment, his daughter in tow. Both their feet crunched through the snow and brought them to the entrance of his tent. Snowflakes floated downward onto pillowy dunes. His daughter, quiet, held tightly onto his hand. They stopped. A glow seeped from the entrance of his tent and his fingers reached for the zipper. He looked towards his daughter, unsure of what he would see. He found it difficult, as always, to gauge her expression. His daughter. The puker of angels. She gripped his hand tighter. Her cheeks were flushed, prickled by the cold. He unzipped the tent and they crawled inside.
He clicked the space heater on and huddled close to her. In the tent had materialized a small television set, the same one that he and Diana had owned in his daughter’s infancy. And on the television an old broadcast of a Christmas movie whose name he no longer remembered flickered on the screen, as if beamed from another world. He felt the black, anxious ribbons loosen and drift elsewhere, ensnaring another Bad Dad this Christmas morning, but not him. And he stroked his daughter’s hand and she said to him, not censoring herself: Dad, how the hell did you get all this snow in here? And he laughed and said, don’t say hell. The sharp scent of pine wandered into the tent. And there, warming themselves, nestled like small mammals, the snowfall continued, gently and mercifully.
— Frank Esparros is a New York based writer and Angeleno homunculus. His fiction has appeared in Misery Tourism and Bruiser Mag. His Twitter is @anti_frank.