At the mathematical center of Dorothy’s father’s RV, at its golden ratio curl, there is a tarot card pinned to the corkboard. The High Priestess; she has been there longer than Dorothy can remember. Worn at her edges, drawn in lines of gold and white and blue, crowned by a crescent moon. She tips her head to listen to the snake coiling up her white throat, whispering in her ear. Dorothy has always loved her, the wisdom writ into her lines, her beneficent gaze on the RV’s interior, the art nouveau spill of her hair down her shoulders.
The acquisition of the High Priestess was Dorothy’s first and last bedtime story. She thinks she will be able to call it up, in all the curves and contours of her father’s telling, for the rest of her life.
“Right after you were born,” Dad says, sweaty palm on Dorothy’s quilt, when she is three, five, twelve, flat on her back and searching out patterns in the RV’s beaten metal ceiling. “I was in this bullshit cubicle job, going nowhere. But I had a little girl to take care of. And I couldn’t just clear out unless I wanted to starve her. And I didn’t ever wanna do that.”
“My boss was the stupidest man I ever met, though. And what was I supposed to do except tell him, one day, ‘Mister, you are the stupidest man I ever met.’ So there I was, then, walking home with my things, my plant and my picture of you, in my little fuck-off cardboard box, and I see this house with this sign in the window.”
And Dorothy asks, “What did it look like?” on cue.
Dad smiles at her. “Hand painted, just like Our Lady.” The tarot card, Our Lady: of the house, the hunt, and hope. “Blue and white and gold. Looked just like a fortuneteller’s sign oughta look and it said ‘Lives Told.’”
“And what’d you get told?”
“Wait just a minute, Kiddo,” he says, even though she’s supposed to ask. He’ll let the pause just hang there if she doesn’t. “I’m getting there. So I walk in, Dot, and I see this beautiful girl. Hair long as Our Lady’s and eyes as dark as anything. And she looks right at me, then she tells everyone else to get out of the room.”
It’s always been hard for Dorothy to imagine this part. The woman, ethereal and strange, with her sudden arrow focus on Dorothy’s father, who is stringy-muscled and untidy, who looks perpetually uncertain and just on the right edge of mean. More and more lately Dorothy’s been thinking, like a dog. Like a hungry stray.
But the rest of the story pivots on this moment of prophetic recognition. And so it must have happened. Dorothy’s father says it did.
“She tells me to sit down. I’m still thinking this must be some kind of scam. But she tells me to sit down, and she takes my hand and she says, ‘It’s you.’ Then she hands me the deck like it hardly matters at all, like she knows what card I’m going to pull. And, of course, it’s Our Lady. Our Lady. Do you know what she said then, Dot?”
“She said, ‘You’re going to find the King.’”
“King of what, Dad?”
“Well, that’s just what I asked. And she said, ‘King of the Vipers, Mister. You’ll find the King of the Vipers, who is older than the land we stand on and has lived a dozen lives. When you find him, you must simmer the fat from his body and eat it, and then you will know everything.”
Who else’s life’s purpose, Dad likes to say, reaches out to take them by the hand?
Their corkboard is plastered with false starts: tabloid clippings from Maine to Mexico, printed blogposts, the photograph of the escaped pet python in Florida and the snake trails Dad and Dorothy drove all the way to Utah to see that, in person, were obviously just from a real big rattler. “Larger than that,” Dad told the farmer’s wife, whom he’d refrained from calling a dumb bitch until they were driving away. “Bigger than you, Lady. Bigger than me.”
The Viper-King hails from Scandinavia. At least, Dad’s pretty sure. They found a story about it in a Scandinavian myth book, in a college library in California. Dad was scared to steal the whole book, so he’d taken his shaving razor out of his pack and they’d worked apart the safety stuff with the little screwdriver from Dorothy’s glasses repair kit. Dorothy knelt on the dusty linoleum floor and dragged the razor over the pages. They’re a little ragged at the edges, but she didn’t do a bad job.
The myth was brief, less than two pages, about a farmer who happened upon the Viper-King in his field and did battle with it. In the end, the farmer was killed by his servant, for the privilege of the Viper’s fat. Those myths had a concise lack of morality to them that Dorothy found interesting, that she liked. Nothing happened for any reason.
Anyone who eats the fat of a Viper-King gains its wisdom. Its wisdom is a whole world of wisdom, is the inside and back and underside of everything. But it works only for the first person who eats it, only for one.
Fate, in the fourteenth year of Dorothy’s life, has finally extended its hand to her father again. The singularity of the quest does not bother him, Dorothy knows. It would bother him if he was not singular, not chosen.
Fate has extended her hand and fate has led them to a rip-off print and copy shop in Chicago, Illinois, so that Dad can honor his latest lead with a spot on the corkboard.
The only parking spot big enough for the RV is half a mile away. Dorothy’s flip flops are starting to break, a hole wearing in the plastic bottom of the left one, so she can feel the hot roughness of the pavement under the ball of her foot with every step. She’ll be glad to see this pair go. The straps are cheap plastic and give her blisters. When she feels them wearing open she pauses to pry her shoes off her feet, looping the straps over her fingers. She drags them along the chain link fence by the path, listening to the clank-clank, until Dad twists around and snaps, “Shoes.”
Dorothy balances the left one on her finger. “It’s going.”
“Damn.” Dad takes the flip flop out of her hand, and bends it, stretches the weakening purple plastic until it turns white. “Put ‘em back on for now.”
“I’ll buy you new ones soon.”
The print shop is lit and tiled in grey. Dad cradles their laptop against his chest while they wait in line, and Dorothy watches sweat puddle between the shoulder blades of the man in front of them.
At every counter they pass, Dad tips the screen back to study Fate’s open palm in his AOL inbox. A photograph of a mosaicked fragment of snake skin, laid for scale over the spectral arm of a woman. At the picture’s edges, where the skin doesn't swallow everything, there are slivers of vivid color: yellowish dirt, the warm brown crease of the woman’s elbow. The measurement from that crease to the tips of her fingers is the width of the skin. The length extends beyond the photo. And it is a fragment, tattered at its ghostly edges.
“Look at that, Dot,” Dad says. He takes Dorothy’s hand, and guides her finger to the screen, like the plastic is magic, and if Dorothy smears her fingerprints over the photo some of its realness will rub onto her hands.
Fate’s emissary calls herself Elaine, from Kansas. It is her arm giving the skin scale. Her email is blunt. Dad calls it “no-bullshit.”
“Found this in my cornfield. Thought with your website you might like to see it.” And then her address, on a line by itself, like a baited hook.
Dorothy’s already had to explain Photoshop to Dad once, following a mishap in Georgia that ended with him threatening a gangly teenager with his gun. When they were back in the trailer, Dorothy sat him down in front of the laptop. “See,” she said, “he just cut a picture of the barn, and he made it smaller than the rattlesnake. It isn’t hard.” Dad dug his nails into his hands until he bled. He couldn’t understand it, he just couldn’t understand it, why any person would lie like that, for sport and nothing else.
Dorothy wanders off while he’s printing. It’s too hot outside, but that’s alright. Kansas’ll be even hotter.
Dad’s another ten minutes. He comes through the door clutching the already creased photograph to his chest like he’s got the most infinitely precious thing in the whole world. When he grins, Dad shows the two missing teeth at the back of his mouth. It’s taught Dorothy to be wary of smiling. She takes the picture from him, watches her sweat smear over the ghost of Dad’s quest. “It looks pretty real,” she says, “I guess.”
Dad laughs with his head tipped back. He looks like he’s howling. “I guess it does, Dotty Dot. I guess it does.”
Dorothy watches an ant carry a dead ant over a crack in the sidewalk. “Yeah,” she says. What else is she supposed to say?
Dad announces “ten hours to Kansas” when they’re back in the RV, and Dorothy watches him cross to the corkboard and carefully fasten the photograph there, under the gaze of their Lady. He’s beaming like a revival preacher on Judgement Day. “Wanna come up front with me?”
Dorothy shakes her head. “I gotta do math.”
All Dorothy’s homework comes from the homeschooling site that’s the first result on Google, except her math, which is from one of those programs for gifted kids. Dad went to a lot of trouble to get her into that class, so Dorothy does her best to be grateful. She’s always had a touch for math, what one of her new lessons calls “number sense,” and what Dorothy thinks of as having a good idea of the shape of things. That’s really all it is, knowing how stuff comes together, knowing where the hard edges are.
Dorothy thinks a lot about probability, about the fact that there must be several other young people in her situation. Figuring out how many was a project she performed in fits and starts whenever they had Internet and Dad wasn’t monopolizing the computer.
She started with the number of men in America, 49% of the population, 160,194,191 men Then the percentage of men with children: 47%, and that brought her down to 75,291,270.
It wasn’t necessary that the men be unmarried. Dorothy’s own father is perpetually single, her mother a gray, sparking patch on the surface of her life, like a video game glitch. But Dorothy doesn’t define herself by her motherlessness. A sibling, however, would have altered the shape of her world. The percentage of only children is 23, and that brings her to 17,316,992.
Dorothy did her math with a pad of paper. Calculators are for cheaters.
It got trickier once she had the only children. Then Dorothy had to figure out how many people lived in RVs full time. The only number she could find was 260,000, and it was old. But she wasn’t giving up, so she figured out what percentage 260K was of the whole population. 0.08%. If Dorothy assumed that living in an RV had no effect on how many children you had, even though it probably did, that was 13,854 dads with one kid, living in RVs.
The last category was hardest. Dad would have Dorothy’s scalp if she so much as thought of him as a “conspiracy theorist.” And he isn’t, really. But Dad’s quest was a necessary part of the equation. The best she could manage was how many people believed in Bigfoot. (13.5%). Dad doesn’t, but Dorothy has to make do. That brings her total number to 1,870.29.
1,870 kids. Upon starting the exercise, Dorothy assumed the answer would be something like 20. She could make paper dolls of them. A severed arm, maybe, for the .3 left over.
Making one paper doll a day, Dorothy could make 1,870 in barely more than five years. She might have met one of those kids by then. She wishes she could calculate the probability of that, as she watches the City of Chicago fall away outside the RV’s window and become the fields of corn that will flow right on into Kansas, but it’s beyond her.
Dorothy wonders if it’s even possible to calculate the odds of finding the Viper-King on this journey. What sort of numbers would she need? How many people send prank emails? How often “evidence” of mythical monsters is debunked? The size of the snake? How much of the world has gone unmapped, uncharted, long enough for something massive, omniscient, and strange to lie hidden there? The odds of finding such a thing, if it has not already been found, seem infinitesimal. Vanishing.
Who wrote about the Viper-King in the first place, anyway? And how did he know about the fat? Did he take moments out of his omniscience to record the legend for others? Was there more than one of these creatures? Did they breed? Or was it really like kingship, a mantle passed down, that no one got rightly until the previous owner was dead? Did a regular viper occasionally get a hell of a shock?
Dorothy supposes if you were omniscient, writing down what you knew would be as good as doing anything else.
They get to the farm at 2 pm the next day with the RV hot enough to melt around them. Elaine flags them down at the edge of her field. She is unmistakable, tall and tawny, with a lot of curly hair knotted up in a handkerchief, sweat glittering on her face and bare arms. She whistles through her teeth at them, like a birdcall.
“You Billy McPherson?”
Dad looks like a black hat in a modern western, his jeans dragged low on his hips by the shotgun he’s shoved through his belt. Looks like he’s coming to steal cattle. “Yeah? You Elaine?”
“That I am,” and she wheels her arm in the air again, and jerks her head towards a house, dusty and small in the distance. “Come on and see it, then. I tell you, man. Some-fucking-thing.”
She falls into step with Dorothy while Dad forges ahead like it’s his house in his field. She’s pretty up close. She smiles a lot, right away, a lot of little separate smiles like she’s laughing at something, and she only asks Dorothy’s name fifty paces after Dorothy hasn’t offered it.
Dad shouts back over his shoulder, “That’s my Dot.”
Dorothy shrugs. She doesn’t feel like talking, is sore from sitting too long and then walking too far. Her flip-flops are opening old cuts on her feet. She bets soon there’ll be scars. “Dorothy.”
Elaine laughs at the sky. “You’re in Kansas again, honey.”
The skin is real.
It sits, resident phenomenon on Elaine’s kitchen table. The sunlight flutters against it, casts diamonds of light and shadow on the walls. “Don’t touch it!” Dad snaps, and Dorothy realizes that she had been about to. Standing by the table, she is nearly shorter than the skin. She could wriggle inside, make it her own skin. It is big enough to shut Dorothy away from the rest of the world.
Dad does touch it. Of course, he cannot do anything else. It caves, ever so slightly, beneath two of his fingers, and bends the light. Dorothy imagines her stomach dropping out of her and rolling across the floor, picking up dust.
Evidence is not an end. The path still curves out before Dorothy. They will not—Dad could not, be content to take the skin to a museum, or to a University, have it sampled, examined and displayed, have a team of scientists take up their search. No, Dad has to find the Viper. It is his destiny, corked up in the RV, to find it.
Yet, the skin means there is an end. Dorothy breathes in and imagines flecks of it dropping off, swirling in the breeze from the air conditioning, being pulled into her lungs. Coating the inside of her, along with dust and particles of Elaine’s skin. God knows how much of her father Dorothy has inhaled over the years. And the skin means that they will not be shut up in the RV together, forever and always, until the end of the world.
“Guess you’ll want to overnight,” Elaine says, into the silence.
“We can sleep in the RV.” Dad picks his own moments to exhibit manners.
“Don’t bother. I don’t mind. Got a couch and a spare room.” She looks at Dorothy. “I bet you’d like a real shower, wouldn’t you? Why don’t I make everyone coffee?”
They all sit together in the living room. Dad nods magnanimously when Elaine looks for permission to pour Dorothy a cup of coffee, and Dorothy sips at it while Dad tells Elaine about the Viper-King. He tells her about the myth, and the fortuneteller, and Their Lady Pinned on the Corkboard.
He talks like a roadside preacher who’s caught someone by the wrist and knows he only has a minute or so to get his spiel out; all quick ands, and anyways, and sos, and earnest you see, don’t yous.
Elaine goes into the kitchen again, while he’s rambling and comes back with three peaches and a pack of cigarettes. She puts one of the peaches in front of each of them, and takes a lighter from the drawer of the coffee table. Dad doesn’t smoke. He doesn’t like people to smoke around Dorothy. Dorothy involves herself in watching Elaine light up, hoping he won’t say anything. Elaine’s fingers are calloused and deft, her dry lips purpling.
She tips the pack in Dad’s direction, offering, and he stops, mid-sentence, mid-explanation and says, “Why not? Haven’t done this in a while.”
Dorothy puts her coffee cup down on the table, for the sound it makes, the break in the moment when they’re both taking a breath and Dad is looking at Elaine while smoke pours out of her mouth, and then eats her peach. She wonders while she sucks the pit why it doesn’t surprise her that the Viper-King is real. It’s really real, its skin is in the other room.
She cannot forget the moment when it occurred to her that Dad might be wrong. She was eight, cross-legged on the RV’s rough blue carpet, her hands in her lap. Dorothy spent a lot of days in RV parks clicking through channels. She’d landed on a television preacher, who was different than the ones she’d seen before, because he was combed neatly and his voice was soft. He was quoting Revelations in that soft voice. “Worthy is the Lamb that was slain to receive power, and riches, and wisdom, and strength, and honor, and glory, and blessing.” He spoke like Dad. Dorothy has always read credibility foremost in the voice.
When Dad came in, he watched the television for a handful of minutes, swaying on his feet. “Come and see. And there went out another horse that was red: and power was given to him that sat thereon to take peace from the earth, and that they should kill one another.”
Dad said, almost with affection, “Loon,” and then turned the TV off. He crossed from there to the corkboard, letting his hand fall just slightly above Our Lady of the Giant Snake.
That, Dorothy guesses, was about that.
Still, the Viper-King seems to her like continental drift, like global warming, like the slow, inexorable crawl of time. For Dorothy, not believing in it is being an atheist in a time when the gods descended from the heavens with their hands out.
In the early hours of the morning, Dorothy sits on the RV’s first step. The sun, just up, but already too hot in the sky, is an open hand across the tops of her knees. Her neck’s prickling under the gust of the air conditioner. Dorothy doesn’t think anything can smell hot like farmland, manure and dry stalks and the oppressive stink of your own sweat. Her jean shorts have edged up too high, and her butt is plastered to the floor, itching.
They’re winding along the roads that run around the farms. Elaine sits inside, on their slatted table, swaying back and forth with her nose pressed to the crack where the window is leveraged open. Her shoulder blades glitter over the lip of her top, sharp enough that her skin is almost translucent around them.
Dorothy feels brittle at the edges, like her fingers might snap off if she tries to bend them. She is still sandy-eyed, and aching from sleeping on the exposed springs of Elaine’s guest bed.
They stop at every field and walk a grid across the ground, search for trails or scraps of snakeskin. Dorothy scuffs her flip-flops. The sun has bleached the possibility from the world.
What was real in Elaine’s house, with that immense fragment of skin glowing and glancing beneath her kitchen lamps, is not real in the flat, bracketed realm of a cornfield. Dorothy has always believed in the Viper-King the way that other people believe in ghosts, or angels, or God; she might, in a properly combative mood, tell a stranger how real it was, but she’d be damn surprised, all the same, to find it on a Kansas farm. She is thinking of doing her math homework tonight, itching and covered in dirt. She is wondering about dinner, the almost-expired tomato soup that she’s going to cook over the hotplate.
Then Dad’s shotgun cracks the sky open.
When the Viper-King bursts up from the corn, Dorothy drops to her knees, an instinctive reaction, duck-and-cover. She presses her hands against the back of her head, forces her face down into the dirt. She is thinking, in a blind panic: Don’t make me look. I don’t want to see.
Above her, the King of the Vipers hisses and spits. Dad’s gun hammers apart the air.
The corn curves protectively over Dorothy’s head. She wonders if she could hide this way forever, on her stomach against the dust, her body a hillock in the field.
What are you afraid of? the corn demands of her.
Didn’t she already see the snake break the horizon? Hasn’t she already met the dazzling, black eyes of her father’s grail? Seen that it’s real, that it breathes, that every cramped and sweating second of her life has been spent on this moment? And seen that the argument could be made that it was a worthwhile exchange? Dorothy rolls onto her back, and sees the silhouette that the Viper-King cuts in the sky.
Dorothy has never dreamed the colors that the Viper is done in. The inside of its mouth is pink, bodily, more fearsome than if it had been red. Animals in fairy tales have red maws, like shed blood. Wolves that eat up children, and dragons that rise from caverns, these things are red all the way down. They hardly have organs, or stomachs, or throats. Real animals have these things, have intestines and kidneys and fat. Real animals have mouths of infected pink.
When the Viper moves, its body, like a coiled muscle, shimmers the colors of desert sand.
Its eyes remind Dorothy of photos of a solar eclipse, the way that the sun flares out dangerously around the hole the moon eats in the sky. Dorothy could put her hands into the center of those eyes. They flit over the corn, over Dorothy’s father and the long arm of his shotgun. There is intelligence in those eyes, and an almost lordly wisdom. If they had approached it more politely, Dorothy thinks, it might have sat up and told them riddles before having them for lunch.
When the King of the Vipers falls, the very earth shakes.
Dorothy runs towards it. The strap of her left shoe breaks, and she leaves it behind her in the field. The Viper’s body is like a felled redwood. Dad has the sole of his boot on its triangular head. Elaine is sitting on crushed corn, biting into the heel of her palm. Dorothy kneels by the corpse, and wonders if it will be ringed inside, like a tree, lined with the strata of centuries of life.
Their butcher knife has been at the bottom of a drawer for thirteen years. Dad has to plant it deep in the Viper’s belly and pull it towards him with both hands, so that it looks only a slip away from slicing him up the middle, splitting him in half like Rumpelstiltskin.
He makes a cross section at the snake’s stomach, and Dorothy and Elaine wear unwieldy rubber gloves to help pull back the flaps of skin back. Dorothy hikes the top of her shirt up over her nose.
They don’t need much fat, but the process of cutting it is arduous. The wet back and forth of the knife and the mythic stink. Dorothy brings out their folding breakfast-in-bed tray so that Dad has somewhere to plunk the meat. Then, between the three of them, they carry the cut back to the RV, resting it on their shoulders like pallbearers.
They try to set the little table down gently, once inside, but it slips their hands anyway and blood sprays onto the carpet. That might not ever come out. Dorothy sits, cross-legged, on the table, while Dad saws the fat away from the rest, bit by bit. The fat goes into a pan, the discarded pieces of meat drop into their mop bucket. The whole room stinks like raw insides.
Dorothy is charged with monitoring the melting fat on their hotplate, while Dad and Elaine go out into the cornfield to decide what to do with the Viper’s body. She can hear them debating, as she watches the top of the pan mist over, whether to drag it back to Elaine’s farm whole or cut it into chunks. Dad keeps laughing, a barking sound that rasps against the metal doorframe.
They did it.
Dorothy gets up and closes the door. She puts a hand on the wall, and then crosses two steps to put a hand on the opposite wall. The very tips of her fingers shake. In summer, the trailer heats up. It’s like living in a microwave.
They’ll never get the smell of fat and blood out of the RV. They’ve never gotten any of the other smells out of it. It still stinks like old scrambled eggs, like cooking chili, like the jalapeños Dorothy puts in her grilled cheese. It smells like combined sweat, and the strawberry milk she drank when she was six.
How would it be, to live in a ten by twenty-five foot trailer, with a man who knew everything in the world?
Dorothy opens the window just a crack. She hears Elaine offer to take off to the neighbors and ask for their tractor. Dad is straddling the King’s stomach, his legs spread just above its slit belly. Dorothy has to wonder exactly how old their Viper is, how much it has seen, and felt, and how long it has buried itself beneath cool earth or glittered under a peaceful sun, how long it went undisturbed before they took an interest in disturbing it.
Dorothy hasn’t had anything to eat. Her shoulders ache. Her hands are still shaking. She takes a piece of sourdough bread, one of the last two in the pack that haven’t gone moldy yet, and puts it in the toaster.
Dad took her to the Grand Canyon once, and they went out on the skywalk. Dorothy was nine years old, scared and determined not to be. But something shifted when they got to the platform’s edge and she could lean against the railing and see the world fall away red beneath her. She realized that if she put her foot on that railing she could hoist herself right over the glass guard wall. She could just feel the world give way. Her stomach absolutely ached with the knowledge that she was a metal rail and a bent knee away from being dead, and Dorothy identified in herself for the first time that instinct for the worst-case scenario, which claims that a ledge, once found, must be leapt from.
Once she looked it up. It’s called the high-place-phenomenon. It means, supposedly, having increased sensitivity to danger, not wanting to die.
When her toast pops out of the toaster, she jumps.
There are still chunks of fat floating in the pan, the rest going towards a faintly golden liquid. It shivers when Dorothy touches the bread to it. The crust comes away glittering, and Dorothy does not allow herself to look at it long before she puts it in her mouth.
She pulls her hand back very quickly, and the rest of the bread flies across the trailer. It’s hot. She sticks her head under the sink like a dog and gulps water.
Perhaps she spat all the fat out, perhaps she did not swallow anything, and the world is intact and narrow.
She presses her nose against the wide, boxy window that looks out over the road, over the farm opposite, brackets a view of the horizon.
Dorothy sees that one of the cows in the next field is pregnant. She sees the fetus curled inside it, its pink, alien body, translucent and veined with dark blood, the flat moonstone of its underdeveloped eye. She sees the knotted hair network of the corn roots beneath the ground, and the deep, wide tunnel that the Viper’s body cut far beneath them. She sees, and shies away from, the long, cool, mass of its life, its hundreds of years of slow knowledge, its enormity of consciousness and simplicity of thought, knowing without interest, without analysis. The world spreads out in front of Dorothy, flat and shimmering and somehow small.
She knows that Elaine and Dad sat up all night, after she fell asleep, that they drank coffee and beer, that Dad took a cigarette from her even though he doesn’t smoke because he liked the sinewy lines of her arms, and thought about asking her to dinner and how he didn’t have any place to ask her. And she knows that Elaine would have said no, though she would have said it nicely, and that Dad didn’t ask anyway, because when he told Elaine that just one person could taste the fat, she shrugged one of her sharp shoulders and said “I guess I know a thing or two more than I ever needed to anyway.” Dad liked her less, after that, he liked her a lot less.
And Dorothy knows why that is, because she looked so certain while she said it, the light glancing off the hard edges of her eyes. Dad has never known what to do with people who are anything but discontented in the borders of their worlds. She knows that Elaine would have said no because she’s discovered she likes to be alone more than she likes to be not alone, and that she discovered that after she caught her husband with his brother’s wife in her shower, but she got the farm out of it so she could mind more than she does.
She sees that her 1,870 is actually only 73, and that she had been within ten miles of one of them, once, when she was eleven. His name is Stuart, but he is in Canada now, with his Dad, looking for Bigfoot. Only 73, and now zero, because this last experience only she will ever have.
She knows who her mother is, that her name is Amy Dorsett and that she got pregnant when she was seventeen and her boyfriend Bill, nearly twenty-one, offered her $7,000 dollars, every cent he had plus more than a little he stole from the parents, to have the baby, because he wanted it—he wanted it so badly. Dorothy knows that her father sat beside her mother in the hospital while she was being born and squeezed both his shaking hands between his knees and cried, because he was afraid his daughter would not be born alive, and that when she was he looked at her little red crinkled nose and paid every cent of the seven thousand and left town the next day in case Amy changed her mind, even though Dorothy knows that Amy never did, because he wanted her so badly.
And Dorothy tries to reconcile that wanting with the two hundred square feet of the past fourteen years of her life and knows that it is at once perfectly unified and irreconcilable. She knows that seven months to the day later her father got an offer to birth something else into the world, and that sitting at a card table while a woman looked straight down the barrel of his eyes and selected him for greatness was one of those happinesses from which a person never recovers.
She knows that the fortuneteller was named Tanya, that she has since gone into real estate, and that at the time that she pulled Their Lady of the Corkboard out of her deck she was nineteen, a college drop out with her own baby girl in the back room of her apartment. She put silver dye in her hair on Saturdays and told unusual fortunes because she got bored, and because people tipped higher when she said extravagant things. If Dad had ever looked near her left elbow he would’ve seen the book on urban legends she was reading between appointments. She knows that Tanya did not for a moment imagine anyone would take her seriously.
Dorothy guesses she won’t have to do her math lessons anymore. She remembers filling out the scholarship application for those with Dad in time to take them instead of seventh grade math, the warmth of his breath just above her shoulder, and how proud he was when the acceptance email came. She knows that he had a beer that night, and considered a future where she went to college, and away from him, and that he had not really thought about that before.
Always, Dorothy assumed that her father was hunting the King for a reason, that there was a plan she never knew, that they might sell the first bite of fat and live well for the rest of their days, or that he wanted to use it find her mother, that he had a question, an earnest, urgent question, that drove him to the road, to the desert, to a myth’s hunting and slaughter.
There is a similarity between Dorothy and her father firmer and more defining than genetics. Dorothy sees that her father wanted the fat for the same reason that she took it, because she was able, because it was there.
Dorothy turns, and sees her father coming through the doorway.