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Long Live the Tribe of Fatherless Girls
Author:T Kira Madden

Long Live the Tribe of Fatherless Girls

T Kira Madden

You remember too much,

my mother said to me recently.

Why hold onto all that? And I said,

Where can I put it down?

—Anne Carson, “The Glass Essay”


While the material in this book comprises extensive research, interview content, photographs, and journals, much of it is based on memory, which is discrete, impressionable, and shaped by the body inside of which it lives.


For instance: the women. From the television commercial that’s been looping for as long as I can remember, featuring the first song I ever memorized. In the commercial, white women in lime-green bikinis walk barefoot and elegant across the smooth deck of a yacht. Their steps have bounce to them; their thongs are amazing. The women flip their hair at the sun, and beads of seawater drip onto their shoulders, down the creases between their breasts. The droplets roll and glitter over their bodies like mercury from a smashed thermometer. A man sings: “Naturally you’re lookin’ good, you look just like you dreamed you would! You’re having fun, you’re at your best, and all it took was Just One Look! Florida Center for Cosmetic Surgery: just one look is worth a thousand words!” His girls are so pleased to be beautiful, his.

When I grow up, after I leave this town, I tuck in alone at night, listen to the garbage trucks lift and crash their arms through the New York freeze. I sip lukewarm water from a clay mug on my nightstand. Three A.M.—bewitched. Just last week, I had a father. He used to say, Sleep, child, need that beauty sleep. No child of mine could be so afraid of sleep. He called me pretty then. Now he is dust—some teeth—a copper urn on my bookshelf, polished.

My hands—they are never not shaking. I press them under my body. Breathe into my pillow until the world goes vague. When I drift off, it’s the women who come first. It’s the women wearing their happiness in a film of sweat, the honor of their position. And then it’s me, a child. A girl pressing her hands against a television screen. She feels the women thrill through the static. She doesn’t move. She stays like this until she hears him again, that little man on his boat, always there, still singing.




My mother rescued a mannequin from the J. C. Penney dump when I was two years old. He was a full-bodied jewelry mannequin: fancy, distinguished. Those were the words she used. Her father, my grandfather, worked the counter day and night, slinked antique chains and strands of jade across velvet placemats, and felt the mannequin did no work for his numbers; he’s pau—done. Grandfather said this with both elbows bent, a chopping motion. The mannequin would have to go.

In this part of the story, my mother and I live alone in Coconut Grove, Florida. We’re in a canary-yellow apartment damned with beanbag ashtrays, field mice, the guts of flashlights and remote controls (Where have all the batteries gone? Where do they go?), and a shag carpet that feels sharp all the way under the shag. She’s single, my mother, the crimson-mouthed mistress of my father, a white man, who is back home in downtown Miami with his artist wife, his two handsome boys. Soon, my father will move my mother and me into a porn director’s apartment, and then to Boca Raton—the Rat’s Mouth—to start over, but none of us knows this yet.

My mother, a Chinese, Hawaiian, pocketknife of a woman, shot a man once. She tells me this story all the time. How the strange man tried to crawl through her window, naked, choking out his cock as she slipped into a nightgown. She shot him in the shoulder with a boyfriend’s .357 Magnum, his body spat out like a rag doll into the liquid black night. He landed in the street—too far to be trespassing—so she dragged him by the legs back on her lawn for more. The man was paralyzed for the rest of his life; he threatened to sue. My mother never once regretted this incident.

But this is how it was in Coconut Grove in the 1980s and early ’90s. Bandits, robbers, glass stems on the sidewalk, bad men doing bad under the bridge. My mother had little to defend in that first apartment of ours—a few gems from her father, frosted Christmas ornaments, her Chinese jade, some cash—but then there was me. We needed a man in our home, a figure bigger than us, she said, to scare off all the other men who would come. All of this to say that the reason she rescued that mannequin, the reason she wrapped her arms wickedly tight around his waist, carrying him to the backseat of our Volvo where the top half of his body slung out the window, his bald head pat-pattering under the rain on our car ride home, all the reasons she did anything—the wrong things, the strange things, the dangerous, the sublime—the reasons she does any of it, still, is to protect me. Remember this.

I name him Uncle Nuke. He has marble eyes, real hair feathering out from his lash line, eyebrows painted with delicate streaks, thin as needles, curved. Little nail moons. He stands six feet tall and smells clean and metallic as the air before a Florida storm. Uncle Nuke wears a tuxedo, and under his clothes, my mother is learning to take advantage of his joints. With a simple twist-pop, she detaches his torso, places him in the passenger seat of our car, buckling him gently like another child. I like staring at the dome of his bald head from the backseat. It’s chipped in places—silver, flecked. We’re able to drive in the HOV lane with the extra body. Three makes a family, says my mother. At least that.

My father visits our apartment sometimes, at night, so late that my visions of him are smudged. There’s the smell of him: Merit cigarettes, orange juice and vodka, money. The grind of his voice. The word: father. This here is your father and Hello, I’m your father. He slips up often and calls me Son. Mostly, when I conjure him then and remember him now, I think of gold. Gold horse bits on the buckles of his shoes; gold buttons on sailor jackets; a gold pinky ring; the gold chain necklace my grandfather gave him from the fanciest case at J. C. Penney. A trade, he said, for my father to wise up and make a commitment—a Jew chain for the only Jewish man I’ve ever met—to turn my mother into something honorable.

Before my father arrives at our apartment, my mother sits Uncle Nuke in a rocking chair near the front window. My mother likes him like this, in profile, the edges of his regal face chiseled out like a dream. Sometimes his legs lie in the corner of our living room, the trousers pressed, his knees locked into place. My mother and I like to change his socks at least once a week. We pull the bright patterns over his club feet, delicately roll the bands up his calves.

This man doesn’t look like he belongs in our home. He looks like he belongs to a different era, someplace far away from here, a life with white dinner gloves, niceties, an engraved cigarette case—U.N.—that quietly clicks closed. My father knows all about the mannequin, his practical functions, the way he wards off intruders, but I wonder, still, what his shadow did to my father’s heart when he drove up in his white Cadillac—if it stoked something fierce enough inside him to make his temples quake, to whet his desire for my mother and me; if it was Uncle Nuke, not even a real man, who eventually made him unpack and stay.

When my father moves in, I begin crawling out of my bedroom at night to visit Uncle Nuke. We meet at his rocking chair. I coil up at his feet.

Where did you come from? I ask. I grip behind the joints of his ankles, breathing in. I’m the one who loves you now.