In Twenty-Three Days, He’ll Be Gone

Nonfiction by Michele Finn Johnson

I’m back in Philly for Christmas, but for the first year, there are no white lights strung outside. Our tree is fake. Mom and I make pizzelles while Dad naps. He’s in chemo, but no one mentions anything so I assume it’s working. Grab six eggs, Mom says. She cracks; I fish dozens of shell shards from the bowl. She doesn’t ask about my boyfriend; I don’t give her the joy of discovering we broke up.
We sit around the kitchen table after Christmas dinner, and Dad tells stories from WWII. He tells only funny ones, like how he buried an unsuspecting soldier along with a third leg. He’s told this story so many times I can see it—France in the dead of winter; the Battle of the Bulge; a surgical tent; the pine box; a dead soldier; an extra leg hanging around, mannequin stiff. Dad and I laugh like we’re ungovernable kids, and then he starts to cough—his unfiltered, Pall Mall hack. Mom hands him a glass of water and I watch him recover—his beer belly’s deflated, his sweater vest limp. Imagine spending eternity with three legs! I say. Dad’s eyes blister with tears.
It’s forty-one degrees outside the morning I head back to Detroit. Mom says goodbye at the front door and whispers, Come home soon? I want to tell her about the boyfriend and the breakup, that I’m heading to nothing but a cold condo and boxed mac-and-cheese dinners, but I know she’ll embark on a full-on campaign for me to move back home. Maybe spring, I wave at the lifeless lawn, when all of this is pretty again.
Dad drives me to the airport. He blasts the LeSabre’s heat, and the car windows begin to sweat. Dad’s hands tremor on the steering wheel. It’s freezing, he says. Are you cold? He’s got a navy scarf tied around his neck, and his winter coat is buttoned to its tip-top. I am, Daddy. I turn away, watch the other cars pass us—other dads, other daughters. Families that aren’t splintered hundreds of miles apart. Dad turns the heat up even higher. I start to melt.

Michele Finn Johnson’s work has appeared in Colorado Review, Mid-American Review, DIAGRAM, The Adroit Journal, SmokeLong Quarterly, and elsewhere. Her work was selected for the Best Small Fiction 2019 Anthology and has been nominated several times for a Pushcart Prize, Best of the Net, and Best Microfiction. Michele lives in Tucson and serves as assistant fiction editor at Split Lip Magazine. Follow her @m_finn_johnson;