Prior to writing fiction, Scott Akalis completed a PhD in psychology at Harvard University. His work has appeared in research journals, newspapers, and literary magazines. See more at: ScottAkalis.com
When Dad married Mom and finished his engineering degree, he couldn't have known that ten years later he he would spend his days nursing her and his nights standing outside of a lug nut factory in a faux police uniform. The security work proved safe - very few lug nut thieves out there - but not secure. The factory laid him off soon after God let Mom go.
I don't remember my mom, but I can picture the boxy ranch house she designed and later died in. I don't remember the day of her funeral, either, but I recall the months afterward, when Dad's crying reverberated against all those right angles.
Once he realized that a place of permanent mourning was nowhere to raise a daughter, my dad started flipping through the real estate ads in The Portland Press Herald. As I looked on from his lap, he told me, "Sad memories are a square peg, and it's going to take a round house to keep them out."
Hundreds of thousands in medical debt limited his search to desperate sellers and dilapidated properties; a government auction of an old lighthouse, too costly for the state to maintain in a time of giant budget deficits and GPS, promised both. Dad bid because of the cylindrical shape, the school district, and sympathy for a fellow unemployed security guard. My first memory of him smiling was when he won that auction.
I started kindergarten the following fall. The kids riding the bus made fun of me for where we lived. In tears, I came home and told my dad.
"Everyone said our house is for weirdoes!"
He carried me downstairs, where he kept his chess board. He set up the pieces and then pointed to an unpopulated square. "You see this?"
"Yes," I said.
"That's where everyone else lives."
Then he picked up one of the largest pieces and held it out for me to see, asking, "What's this?"
"Our house," I said between sniffles.
He nodded and set the piece down on the square that represented everyone else's houses.
"Do you know what this piece is called?"
"The lighthouse," I guessed.
He smiled and wiped my eyes.
"It's called the queen. And do you know what a queen's called when she's your age?"
"A princess," I said, beginning to grin now, too.
"Well, that's what this place is fit for," he said, taking me into his arms.
As a parent, such object-based teaching proved his strength. He used the square footage of our house to introduce me to pi before my classmates learned it wasn't edible. He served lobster as an entrée into phylogeny. I sketched buildings on the grids of leftover nautical maps, and he borrowed them for a lecture on urban planning.
What my dad struggled with were the questions that didn't lend themselves to his method. An inability to answer one question, in particular, pushed us apart in my adolescence. Every time I asked him what Mom was like, he told me to look in the mirror. That was all. It may have been the least painful answer for him -- may even have been the most accurate -- but it wasn't the most helpful for a teenage girl trying to understand herself. After high school, I picked a college on the opposite coast and stayed there past my master's.
When I finally returned to New England, I brought with me a newborn daughter and a newfound appreciation for my father. To my dismay, I found him lying in bed, depressed and hobbled. Dad could no longer handle the lighthouse's isolation and steep stairs. My husband and I begged him to move into our apartment, but he would not.
As the first project for my fledgling architectural firm, I designed a pair of houses with the goal of raising my family next door to my dad. I found an old photo album for inspiration and built in reminders of the happy decades before Mom got sick. I prayed that moving into the new place would lift his spirits like the beacon had before.
Once construction finished, I helped my dad into the passenger seat of my truck and drove him to our new homes. As we pulled into the driveway, he remarked, "Looks like aliens double-parked their flying saucers, one on top of the other."
I ignored his dig and helped him get out. We toured both floors, taking the elevator in between. He noticed the features that recalled his first house with Mom. His mood improved. A little. Then I walked to the closet and returned with a checkers board somebody had given us at the baby shower.
"You see this?" I asked, pointing at a blank square.
"That's where all the other old men live," I said. Sliding one checker disc onto the blank square and putting another on top of it, I asked, "Now what's this?"
"My house," he replied, his eyes watery.
"Do you know what this is called, now that I've put one on top?"
"I'm more of a chess guy," he cracked.
"It's a king," I said. "And that's what this place is fit for."