My dad had the worst breath, and even though it was bad, I still liked being close enough to smell it. The scent of stale, overcooked office coffee he drank, cup after cup, until his teeth were stained saturated his mouth. They were yellow on the outside, and grey from fillings inside. He hated his teeth, because although they were straight, they were small. He cared more about his appearance than you would have imagined. Once he stormed from the room when my mother told him he looked like “Baby Huey” after attempting to fix a new style into his hair with an expensive salon product. He didn’t swear at her; he looked in the mirror, took a small-toothed barber’s comb and left to return his basic and thinning crew to its normal position.
I never knew he had been attractive as a young and middle-aged man, so I didn’t know he could have been attractive as an older-middle aged man, or that his self-image could falter.
He cared about shoe quality, good suits and the crisply ironed shirts worn inside them. Before the internet, he had gathered information about when to wear khaki blazers and which widths of ties belonged to which decades. I shouldn’t have been surprised that after listening to his sermonizing about shoe construction and fit, sole quality, and when and where to buy designer shoes on sale, I would be offered a job as a sales associate at an upscale men’s shoe store when a clerk overheard me explaining to my husband why he should build his professional shoe collection starting with a solid pair of Oxfords. Brogues could come later, when we had more money.
And that was it. After uttering that sentence about future, hoped-for financial security and the stability to live in style more easily, I was Paul.
I’d known I was my mother. Accused of looking like my father for so many years leading into puberty, I couldn’t believe it when one day, in addition to my mother’s freckles, I had woken up with her troublesome but fantastic hips, and her wide, smile. Most dentists asked when I’d gotten my braces off. We’re both so close to 5’8’’ that we lie at the DMV. What’s that last quarter-inch, anyway?
But as I tucked my daughter in tonight, I took one last sip of microwaved coffee in the transition between prayer and song, and I smelled my breath after the first line of “Twinkle, Twinkle.” It was that same nasty coffee breath of my dad’s. Pulling her covers up, I remembered going through the same ritual with my dad, but we said the “Our Father,” and he sang “Be Near Me, Lord Jesus.” I sang her my best and touched her hair, breathing that bad breath over.