Illustrate by  Kelly Opalko

Illustrate by Kelly Opalko

My father's nails are clean today. His hands rest on his chest, riding the movement of his shallow breaths. Each breath an undertaking, done deliberately. A pause after each and my father and I hold our breaths in unison. Then his chest moves; I breathe out, too.

It goes on like this. The ceiling fan hums, my father wheezes, and I hold my breath. I think about his fingers: loose, pale claws clutching his blanket.

Once those fingers were used to break the necks of perch. He wrenched their necks straight up until there was a cracking sound and their gills flared out. Sometimes their bodies would contort as if they were swimming. Then a last, feeble gurgle and my father would throw them back into the lake where they would float upside down.

"They have worms, we can't put 'em back in the water alive," he said, his fingernails caked with wormshit from baiting our hooks all afternoon.

The explanation never made sense and his fingernails are clean today. He gurgles and I hold my breath.

-Joe Carpenter