Chantel Tattoli reaches into the colors of her past, present, and future.
If because I say archaeology you’re thinking khaki, sand, canvas and tan—the shorts, grit, kit bag and calves—then you’re right. It is like that on the playground. In a khaki skort and baby pink polo the school allows this year, but will meanly discontinue the next. Excavating on her haunches, this little girl; her favorite game is to brush off tree root “bones” with mockingbird feather “tools.” It may be because at night, late, my father and I watch programs about ancient history. Or about aliens, or animals, or the military. My father wears 80s frames around a strong prescription that browns in the sun, and on my head, his Italian hair is so long, it whisks my haunches when I walk.
Barely seventeen, I declare as an anthropology major at a liberal arts college. My father cannot believe it:
I’d always said I wanted to be an archaeologist.
“You were just a rugrat.”
Sophomore year, I am having an existential crisis in Morocco. My hair doesn’t even touch my shoulders now:
“Get me the fuck out of here. Right now.”
He tells it as a family story. The time I called my father from a pay phone in Marrakesh. He
titters and his eyes oil. “What did I expect him to do?”
He pauses to punch the line. “Be Chuck Norris?”
There is a whole summer I remember in sepia. Chemistry at community college was just an excuse to live on the beach. After lab, I went into hot, blinding Florida with my boyfriend’s wayfarers on, and their sepia lenses colored everything the honey temperature of older photographs. Sepia, you must know, is the tone of preservation—bugs kept in amber—mummies leathered—flowers pressed—skin liver-spotted—oranges: let go, rotted. Sepia is the tone of what isn’t anymore. The hips of sand (really olive like my father) (like me), they honestly looked better, Tahitian or something, through those lenses. But in sepia I see how that boy broke that pair of sunglasses. In sepia I see how my father reacted to my purpled skin.
I watched this director interviewed. She didn’t want her period piece to look or feel like a “period piece,” so in her shots, she forbid brown. She used light blue and a lot of hot pink on purpose.
There are rose lenses. There are brown, Italian-American eyes. There, the violet contacts I imagined were great and wore from six grade through sophomore year of college, until I underwent LASIK. You should pick a color or colors when you go digging. Attention-grabbing colors, little girl’s colors, father’s colors. Colors that stick in time. Because my dad had a purple polo the same color as medicine I was sometimes prescribed for I don’t know what. Because he had another polo, one the same color as MUST BE REFRIGERATED strawberry medicine, which I took every winter for bronchitis. Because I wore those polos around the house waiting for him to arrive home and especially when he was away on business. Because their hems came down to my shins, and they tickled.
A water moccasin strikes our Shetland sheepdog twice on the head on a Saturday. None of the nearby vets are open, so my father and I race to a clinic about forty-five minutes out. I hold Toby in the backseat of the Jaguar my father will eventually give me. A big, beige car I’ll drive forever. I do not see it yet, but that car is a camel treading sand in an hour glass. More this chunk of amber that will keep us together: me, fifteen with my hands in Toby’s hot fur as if I can heal him; my father before his hair starts to gray, wishing this wasn’t happening to his kids. Moby Toby Tobster’s poison-thinned blood is printing cherries on my pajamas. But just now—because I have my father’s eyes, his terrible eyesight, because I do not have contacts in—I can’t see.
I am eldest. The next day, when we return to the vet, I should know when they take just our parents back. But we are innocents. My little brother, sister and I wait. I will remember thinking how I’d not been able to see anything, because of the waterfall. Mostly because my vision is so bad without purple contacts. I will not remember how humanely they try to tell us. I will remember my father’s face collapsing. His nostrils and mouth shooting air. His own big hand like it was trying to pull off his face.
It is customary during long-distance car trips for my father to acquire a stuffed animal for me at a rest stop. A big soft pink horse with a whorling opal horn out its forehead, for example. A stillbig, still-soft horse now dingy purple because in undergraduate, I didn’t care, I threw all colors together in the machine. You must know that, no matter where you are going, everything takes 15 more minutes in the car with my father, and probably Elvis is up front, singing.
My father and Elvis Presley share the same birthday. My father’s father gave him a cookie jar in the form of Elvis’ pink Cadillac at the surprise “over the hill” party my mother threw for my father when he turned forty. I am incredulous. I remember that party; to think my boyfriend now is only several years younger than my father was then, it starts something gnawing in me.
My father has this Elvis pen. One of certain things he pulls from his closet to distract us while he packs for this place or for that. But the pen. Its top is like a snow globe. There is a tiny, suit and pompadour King in there. And you can slide Elvis’ pink Caddy back and forth through iridescent sparkles and black music notes. I want this pen—many years later I will ask for it. But my father won’t know where it went.
I ask my father a question one day en route to kindergarten. I ask, so he shifts to address me; his spine is twisted in the driver’s seat when a lady doing her makeup smashes into our car stopped at the light. My father passes out. For my next question I ask, “Daddy?”
I have on purple jellies on. A fireman has me. I am thinking one jelly shoe is going to fall off. It is going to hit the asphalt. Then my mom pulls up.
The worst is seeing my father hanging in a traction device from my parents’ bedroom door. I wish I hadn’t asked any questions.
I am a child. Sometimes I walk on my father’s back to ease the pain. When I am especially bored, I play on it with lotion and the pink plastic hair rollers with little teeth. It is zen. Racking lines through the cream, combing the back hair all one way. Zen even though it is action movies onscreen or John Candy.
I cannot be a child because I am twenty-three. This Valentine’s, my father brings home roses for me. I am beautiful, he says; he loves me. My mother has to text me a photograph of these flowers—because I am not there. I am in another state, in an MFA program. I am digging in the fatherland.