I don’t remember the exact day that he showed up. More like, the exact month that I first noticed him: a sweltering July where night seemed to be cramped into nonexistence and breathless day took over like a fat man in an elevator. Sleeping was an impossibility; I tossed and turned for a cool spot of bed and flipped my pillow for a spot not made hot by my head. The sheets below me were damp with sweat that the old ticking window air conditioner did not dry. Outside the window in the long, bright twilight that seemed to last all night, tree frogs and insects sang, the only ones happy in this weather.
I would never sleep.
I sat up, clutching my striped blankie that I still carried, rubbing its flannel softness against my cheek in an attempt to sooth. I’m never going to sleep.
I’ll sing you a song.
And he did, from somewhere under the bed. A quick song that skipped and slid along the scale, hitting notes that Western music didn’t. I laughed and clapped until I woke up my Daddy came down the hall in his Redskins t-shirt and underwear and told me to shut up because I was bothering Mama who was trying to sleep and it was hard enough to sleep in this goddam weather without a goddam circus going on down the hall.
I whispered to him after that, for the next few days, when we pretended to have a tea party or were cops and criminals or played supermarket. One weekend when Mama was standing at the counter, sweating glass of sweet tea in hand and her eyes staring out the window at nothing, I said, “Mama?”
She jerked. I noticed the way the humidity put a million tiny curls in the hair around her face as she turned to look at me. “What do you want.”
“I need a name. A good name, he says.”
Mama’s lips went straight and thin. “Who says?”
“Oh, your invisible friend. The one you were talking to in your room last night.”
I nodded. “I tried to think of something good, but none of them were good. Not a dog name, he says. I need an angel name.”
“Parsifal,” Mama said.
So he was Parsifal. Mama called him from name from then on, a little joking laugh to her voice that I loved, like Penny are you coming in for dinner and is your Parsifal coming too? Daddy never said Parsifal. He just said that you should stop talking to yourself or you’re gonna get a lot of bruises in school because they’ll think you’re a ‘tard Penny.
One night Mama and Daddy got into a fight a the dinner table. It was so hot that someone had to fight. The salad in the big swan bowl on the table drooped over the edge and our glasses left wet rings on the table when we moved them. The window air conditioner in the kitchen groaned and whirred without effect, and a fly buzzed slowly from the kitchen to the dining room, circling us and landing on the chair beside me.
“– how can I do anything here? It’s Kirkville, for crying out loud,” Mama said. The fork in a first trembled slightly, like a dragonfly’s wings when it perched on a blade of grass. “Who am I talking to, anyway? You don’t know Wagner from your uncle.”
“Condescending bi–” Daddy started, and Mama cut him off with a growl less like a woman and more like a cat.
“Don’t be frightened, Parsifal,” I whispered, leaning towards the chair beside me. “Do you want to go play in my room?”
The table shook as Daddy’s fist cracked it. “Dammit, Penny! Fine, go to your room!”
“Don’t talk to her that way!” Mama snarled. “Come here, Penny! Come here, angel!”
But I didn’t like the sound to her voice or the way her eyes were slits, so I slid off my chair and pelted down the hallway to my room. I crawled under my bed and lay there in the cool, dusty silence, feeling my heart thudding against the old bare wood floor and leaving damp prints with my sweaty palms.
“Sing something,” I whispered.
Parsifal sang something with no words but I knew it was about far away, and it scared me, because he was trying to warn me.
In the morning, Mama’s shoes were gone from beside the door, her fancy tall boots that went up most of her leg and made her look like a fancy model from TV. And Mama was gone too. Daddy spent the morning swearing and kicking boxes around in the backyard, and the afternoon on the remote phone, circling the living room like the ladybugs and the light. I thought he was talking to Mim, and was proven right later when he said into the phone no she’s not crying no you can’t hear her she doesn’t even know anything yet and fine you can talk to her.
“Penny,” he said, “Stop whispering and carrying on and talk to Grandma.”
I took the phone — back then, it was huge in my hands, and smelled like cigarettes — and said, “Hi, Grandma.”
“Don’t be sad,” she said. “I’m coming there. I’ll be there tomorrow.”
“Mama’s gone far away,” I said.
“I know she has. But we’re going to be just fine,” Mim said. That’s when I knew that Parsifal was right, that Mama wasn’t coming back.
So Mim came the next day, and she cleaned up all the boxes Daddy had kicked around and she vacuumed under my bed and she asked me to keep my conversations with Parsifal a little more quiet because they were waking her up in the morning.
Summer lasted forever. The leaves on the trees sagged and the air shimmered. Daddy stopped eating dinner with me and Mim and Parsifal at the dining room table, staying at work and then coming home to sleep and then going back to work again, no time for dinner with me. And I didn’t have anything to say to Mim at that big empty table, nothing but us and the summer squash and the roar of the broken air conditioner.
“Fine,” she said, her voice disappointed. “You can go to your room, now, Penny, if you want to.” As I scooted from my chair, she said, “Wait. You know what? I have a present for you. I was going to wait, but you look like you need a present now. Wait there.”
I stood silently by the table while she went to the study where she was sleeping and brought me a Walmart bag. I carefully opened it and found a camera at the bottom, one of the ones without film. She took it from me, putting batteries in, and as she did, she said, “I know you don’t feel like talking much now, Penny, but maybe you feel like looking. You can look through there and take pictures of everything, hundreds of them.”
I remember I smiled, even if I don’t remember saying thank you, and I ran to my bedroom with it. Sliding under the bed again, I flicked it on, a little green light illuminating one inch of my hand in the darkness that was getting to be real darkness as summer started to admit it would have to leave eventually.
“Smile, Parsifal,” I said.
I clicked the shutter and looked at the screen. All that showed up in the dark was Parsifal’s eyes, thin and slanted up at the edge, even, pupilless color from one side to the other.
Mim gave you that because your mother left.
“I know,” I said.
Parsifal’s eyes glowed back at me in the camera viewfinder.
Do you want me to tell your father to leave too?
Author’s note: because I just found that photograph on my son’s camera. I’m hoping it’s the cat. It’s the cat, right?
image from jon_a_ross