The Smell of Hai Karate

The Smell of Hai Karate by Amy Pence

You remain faithful to the dream of the father, unmarred by age, disease, or reality.  In your imagination, the door folds open, a chandelier will drop—it’s Mystery Date, but with fathers.

You didn’t know how deep it went, how deep it goes—the past with its constellated inquisitions. When you open the door, the plastic tab slides into place and grabs up the plastic placard to reveal another sore-eyed lonesome.

Next scene: you’re all seated at low tables, Japanese style. All the fathers are waiting: The first one must be the bum: he’s disheveled and wearing his tattoo sleeves, elaborate with icons—the Welcome to Fabulous Las Vegas sign, flamingoes one-legged in twosomes, every lap dancer he’s ever known engraved with the blue ink of want. You don’t need this one—this leering father of the comic book eyes, the puzzle of who you are lost in so much obscenity.  Before he can crush the fortune cookie with his fist, you look to his left—

A corporate type, sartorial, spectacled, slightly embarrassed to be in his stocking-feet. When it’s your birthday, he’ll give you money:  one dollar bills, celery-tinted. He lavishes you with the bills and your heart leaps; he holds up a Polaroid camera. He tells you to spread it all open so he can take your picture. The cash develops first, fanned across your chest—then finally your face, maximum exposure: the front teeth only half in. You want to thank him, but he’s backing away, holding his shoes. When you look closer, it’s obvious what it is: Monopoly money.  He’s a shyster, that’s what your mother would say.

Yet the table’s still filled to capacity: your mother’s sometime sweetheart—the guy in the pencil-thin tie, like Tony Bennett or Dean Martin. He’s ashing a cigarette in his sushi. You suppose he’ll sing his heart out just for you. You want to ask him his name: he could be famous, one of those slick and lucky guys from the late 50s. But it dawns on you he didn’t want you, didn’t even want to claim you— he’s an impersonator, the features not quite right. He’s sweating buckets.  How lucky is that?

There’s a spotlight rolling across their faces: the gambler, the dealer, the phantom, the host.The bearded lush-life who might give you a place in Heaven, like Jesus Christ Superstar, if you wanted it, glammed with sequins, a technicolor coat.

The atmosphere is heavy with cologne. Old Spice, Hai Karate. The sound of your mother laughing. Maybe they use those Schick double-edged razors:  knocking off one hair, then another, and another—thick black, the kind of hair only men have: elastically tough under the blade.

You finally settle on one of them: but he’s half-turned towards children at another table. He’s got the well-groomed head of a Ken doll, but with all the paint still on—not like the one your little sister sucked away into a stupid island of bald. They’re all breaking open their fortune cookies and you can’t see his face.  He has other children—looks like they had reservations.

Behind large panes of glass, there’s a fake rain forest and that’s where his kids go, hiking up on their patent leathers, looking at the parrots, the mynah birds. You try to dislodge yourself from the table, try to be a part of their picture: imperial, special, wanted. Don’t be rude, your mother says. Stay still.

But it’s like you’re leaving the amusement park, exiting the steamboat, your stomach joggled by too many rides. You reach for the hand of your father as if that touch would help you to land more easily into who you are.  And it’s right there, his hand— eye-level— you reach to take it, but at your touch, it stiffens.  You look up into the hovering face of a stranger—goateed with full lips—  a man who doesn’t want your sweating palm in his.  He draws it away. Slow enough that your eyes hold each other. Your humiliation; his curt and deliberate refusal.


About Amy Pence

Amy Pence authored the poetry collections, Amour (Ninebark Press, 2012) and The Decadent Lovely (Main Street Rag, 2010). Winner of the Claire Keyes Poetry Award from Soundings East, Pence has published in The Antioch Review, The Oxford American and Juked, among others. She’s also published flash fiction, interviews, reviews, and essays in Women’s Studies Quarterly, The Rumpus, The Conversant, Colorado Review, Poets & Writers and The Writer’s Chronicle, among others. She teaches in Atlanta, Georgia, and lives in Carrollton.

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