About My Dad

My dad reads the paper, and he expects me to do the same. He doesn’t read a whole lot else – Consumer Report, maybe a Sports Illustrated here and there – but every time I visit home there’s a gray stack waiting for me, The Times getting old on the kitchen table. There’s always a lot to catch up on. I make a point of seeing my parents every couple of months, but that leaves a huge pile waiting for me. If I let it go any longer, the pile trickles down to the floor and makes my mother complain. More than usual, anyway

That’s my memory, my association with getting home. It’s walking in to see the papers towering, just sitting there for me to unfold them again. Then, once she hears the door shut behind me, my mother’s voice makes a strident nasal edge in the air. “He’s had the paper, just sitting there like always, gathering dust, making the table impossible to clean, uncomfortable to eat at, and we never know when you’re coming for a visit – when you’re coming home. Not that we don’t like when you visit, Helen, you know we’re happy to have you, it’s fine that you come so often, but maybe just let us know so that we can make some plans of our own, so we’re not always waiting for you.”

That’s the part where my dad will lumber forward with a hug, wrapping his arms around me so that I have something to hold onto and don’t drown in the icy torrent of her words. He’ll say something like, “Karen, honey, let her put her bags down. Hi, sweetie, good to see you.” When he lets go of me my mother will come over to clasp me, briefly and perfunctorily, against her skeletal self before letting me go again. It’s always the same afterthought.

Then I carry my things, bags and suitcases that pull my heavy shoulders to the ground, up to my musty-smelling old bedroom. She’s still nattering in the background. I settle back onto my bed with the familiar whine of her voice scraping at my ears. The familiar atmosphere of home.

I have a hard time with figuring out when and how often to get home. For every morning I want to spend with my dad, sitting across the bleached-wood table with the sun washing everything to bright and nothing but the quiet of a new day – each of those moments, I have to counter with a, “Well I’m sorry it’s not good enough, Helen,” and gusty sigh. Those are the worst, my mother’s sighs. She inhales, gathering all the disappointment and resentment she can fit into her lungs, and then she blows it into my face in a foul-smelling mess of uncomfortable emotion.

Home beckons, because my dad is there. He’s waiting, making me scrambled eggs and toast and pushing my orange juice toward me. He’s sitting across the table staring at the chair I usually occupy, and his eyes are sad. I can hear it in his voice when I call and get him on the phone. “Hey, bunny. How are things going with you? I miss you. You’ve got a whole lot of newspaper to catch up on.” My dad is home, reading the paper by himself and then placing it carefully on the growing stack so that when I get back, I can catch up on what the world’s been doing while I’ve been gone. It hurts my heart to think of all that paper, so patient for me to just flip through it for a weekend and then toss it in the recycling bin on my way out.

But when I do go home, my mother is there. She’ll say, “Oh, how good to see you. Sweetie.” She’s gotten better lately, and her tacked-on endearments almost sound like she meant to say them in the first place. She’ll say, “Please stop being so nasty, Helen dear,” as if the extra words meant anything. She’ll give me a look acknowledging that she really just thinks I’m nasty, and then she’ll smile like it’s all fine. She’ll say, “No, it’s all fine, really,” and let me walk off wallowing in the guilt she’s emanating. She tells me it’s fine until I’m curled in the corner trying to cry quietly, and then she wonders what she ever did wrong.

My dad almost married someone else. Some woman named Laura, I think, something with an L. I learned about that when I was seven, and was wide-eyed and confused for weeks. It was very strange to me that I could not have been born at all, if only things had worked out a little better. Laura was flighty and high-spirited, by all accounts. She didn’t have the time or the patience for my father, and she got bored halfway through planning a wedding. The one virtue my mother has is patience, and she puts up with my plodding-slow father in exchange for his careful silence while she rails or rants.

When I get home, I go to bed tired. I get up early, though, because my dad’s always waiting downstairs with my breakfast and the oldest paper. He insists I go in chronological order, because that way I’ll get a real sense of what’s been happening all this time. I start with December and work my way up to April, reading about last season’s hurricanes, elections and business deals. My dad will occasionally read a headline to me, or I’ll interrupt him to ask about an article I want more background about. He watches the news a lot, so he paraphrases some news anchor until I understand.

I eat my scrambled eggs while flipping pages, sometimes eyeing my dad sidelong as he eats and reads too. While I’m supposed to be reading up on the tragedy in Brooklyn, he almost misses his mouth with the fork because he’s so engrossed in yesterday’s news. I never read the news when I’m on my own. It’s too depressing. I think my dad gets a certain kind of comfort from it, though. He likes seeing all the horrible or awe-inspiring things neatly encapsulated in an article, all in the same typeface on the same newsprint, with a photo to prove that it happened. I think about this while I’m buttering the toast, or drinking the last sip of orange juice. I look at him and think, and pretend that I’m concentrating on the trade problems of Mozambique or something.

I think about how he lives his quiet life, reading the paper with breakfast. Sometimes he looks up and smiles at me, so I smile back at him. Seeing the surprised look on his face when he catches me looking at him nearly breaks my heart. He smiles as if he’s delighted that someone noticed he was there. Eventually my mother comes down into the kitchen, pours herself some cereal, and maybe starts talking. I check my watch, the calendar, anything that tells me the time. I have to make sure that it’s not too long before I leave. I’ll be gone, the papers hidden away again and a new stack starting. I’ll be gone and things will carry on just as they are. My mother will fill the house with high-pitched complaints and accusations. My dad will still sit, alone now at the breakfast table, with the black-and-white safety of the world’s disasters.

Desperate Times

The clatter of computer keyboards filled the air, the tap-tap-tap bouncing about and mingling to buzz in an exceptionally irritating sort of way. Isabel stood in the office, the tables splayed out around her and the journalists all bent over their computer screens. The people who worked there bent over their screens, in any place. She was somewhat to proud to concede to them the name of journalist.

She’d read a couple things by Public before, of course. It would have been in bad taste to come to the job interview with no idea of what she was getting herself into. Then again, she’d noted as she flipped through articles, what she was getting herself into seemed also to be in very bad taste. Public printed the sort of articles that were taken home and perused by the sort of people who desperately wanted something exciting, and seemed to prefer that it happened to other people. Isabel had winced as the supermarket clerk scanned the magazine or pamphlet or whatever the thing was anyway. She didn’t like even to seem like one of those people. It wasn’t that her own life was so exciting. She simply couldn’t imagine finding Public more so.

One new celebrity had been seen in an outfit that was glaringly inappropriate, at the grocery store of all places. Was it daringly original or simply exceedingly trashy, the papers wondered? And of course, what was she doing in such an ordinary place to begin with? Another star had left his wife just after her pregnancy was confirmed. The end of an affair? The tabloids queried. This garbage was pumped out, printed up, and sent of to thousands of supermarkets and newsstands throughout the country. There it was eyed as the stores’ patrons lined up for the cash register. A great many people never gave the tabloids and the nonsense within a second thought – except, of course, for the substantial number of Americans who made a great deal of the sensationalist, petty, and entirely fabricated tripe printed in such things.

Now, as Isabel stood in the office, she stared at the work around her. There was a bulletin board on one wall, covered with photographs of scantily-clad women – that, Isabel reflected, was probably part of the work they were doing rather than a distraction from it. Several of the writers were typing away busily and lines of text scrolled down their screens. Several more seemed only to be online, passing the time some other and probably more interesting way. Over the shoulder of one who seemed particularly industrious, Isabel read, “Leah leaves home – is this the end?” She supposed she would have to familiarize herself with celebrities and such, until she was on a first-name basis with various famous strangers as so much of the country was. Someday, she thought with an apprehensive twinge, the words “Jennifer caught out – Alan angry” might actually mean something at all to her.

The grating sound of a forced cough caught her attention. Isabel turned to see a small plump man waiting for her. His eyes were nervous and watery. She shook the red, sweaty hand he offered her, and he said, “Isabel Pearce? I’m the assistant editor, Ed Andrews. Why don’t you come into my office.” He turned and waddled over to a door in the corner, and she followed. Her heart was racing suddenly, though she wasn’t sure why. She needed the job, of course. Hopefully Mr. Andrews would sign her on. It occurred to her, though, that wasn’t why she was so abruptly anxious. As she followed the little man into his office and sat on a rickety plastic chair, she pasted a smile onto her face, a bland expression despite her worry. She was worried that she would get hired. Even so, maybe she’d get lucky. She didn’t think she was suited for the job at all.

Chocolate, Love, and Wishes

The houses piled on the hills, all perched among the trees in red-and-white blocks. They nestled among the furry cascade of trees until they lost themselves in the forest, and the mountain rose above them dark and green. Emma sipped her lemonade without tasting it, feeling the sting of the lemon on her tongue from far away. She stared at the colors of the mountain where they faded in a wash of fog.

“You’re tired? Coffee, very good.” Emma jerked to attention at the sound of the waiter’s voice. It was deep and warm, marked with an accent. He grinned at her, his teeth white against a short beard. She smiled faintly back before her mouth dragged down again.

“No,” she said. “Thanks. I’m just distracted.”

“Ah,” he said. “Then no coffee for you. We don’t give coffee to distracted Americans, is a very bad habit.” Emma glanced up at him, her mouth falling open, but he was still grinning at her. Reluctantly, she let her lips curve into another smile, more genuine this time.

“Too distracted for dessert?” he asked.

She shook her head. “Oh, no, I couldn’t. Dinner was so good – ” She gestured helplessly at the pile of food left on her plate. “I’m stuffed. I can never eat a whole dessert by myself anyway.”

The waiter looked around the cafe, his eyes searching the people littered around tables and the half-empty bottles of wine. “I do not know this word stuffed. But I have plan for you. What kind of dessert you like?”

She craned her neck around to look at the chalkboard, tempted. There were desserts scribbled onto the bottom. She said, “I guess there’s chocolate mousse, I love chocolate. But it’s so rich, I really could never eat the whole thing.”

“I will be back. One moment!” the waiter announced. He disappeared with her plate, leaving her to wish she had eaten more of the carrots. She waited, leaning on the table. Her eyes wandered over the mountain, climbing up past the clusters of houses into the depths of forest above. Close up, she thought, it was probably all twigs and leaves brushing your face and funny smells. From far away, though, it looked like a deep mysterious forest. It looked like the trees would rise up around you and reach into the sky, and the shadows would stretch long and black. It was the kind of forest you could get lost in and stumble upon a witch’s cottage.

“Here.” The waiter’s low voice pushed into her thoughts, and she turned back to the table. He was pushing a goblet in front of her, full to the brim with chocolate mouse and topped with a tuft of whipped cream. She opened her mouth to protest, and he held up a hand. “No, wait. Here is my plans.” He stretched out a hand toward her, and the spoon between his fingers became two, splayed apart. He flipped one onto the table in front of her, and then sank into the empty chair.

Emma paused. She thought about germs, and strange men, and accepting food from people she didn’t know. Then she laughed at herself a little bit and took a scoop of mousse. It was smooth and intense, and melted into cream in her mouth. She closed her eyes to taste it better, and thought the waiter must be watching her. She wondered if he would think she was silly or cute. When she opened her eyes though, he was scooping his own spoonful of mousse out of the glass. She watched him close his eyes and let it melt in his mouth.

They finished the whole goblet between the two of them. The waiter stole the last bite, flashing his mischievous grin at Emma. She smiled back now. Then he got up and left, without a word. She wondered, suddenly upset, and then he returned. He laid a slip of white paper before her and walked away again. Emma leaned to see it, curious, and realized with a flush that it was the bill.

She dug out her wallet, tucked a few bills under her half-finished lemonade, and stood to leave. There over her shoulder was the waiter again, and he smiled at her as she gathered her things. She smiled back, and then she began to walk away. She heard his “goodbye” from behind her, and she wished she weren’t leaving. She wished she could stay where the whole world was beautiful, and learn the waiter’s name, and maybe have more desserts. She kept walking, back to her empty hotel room and her messy suitcase, with the taste of chocolate lingering on her tongue.

Reunion

They saw her tottering from blocks away. She was wearing black. When she got closer, they waved, and she seemed to see them through the window. She flapped a hand in their direction and walked purposefully over to the door. They watched her wrestle with it, leaning back with her hands wrapped around the handle as if she would try to pull it off the building. A passing busboy yanked open the door for her, and Ella thought she might stagger and blow away.

She got to their table, pressing a hand on its corner to ease herself into her seat. Ella stood, fidgeting. She waited until everyone was still and then she swooped to peck the wrinkled cheek. “It’s so good to see you, Aunt Eleanor,” said Ella. The old woman smiled up at her with thin puckered lips. It was a familiar smile, one Ella remembered from her childhood summers. When Ella was younger, Aunt Eleanor had seemed like a comforting beacon in her small fragile life. She had been a bit plump, always smiling, and her hugs were warm and firm. When Ella’s father died, her mother stopped taking them anywhere in the summer. They stayed at home, under the angry sun, and Ella sent a few halfhearted letters. They visited for the first time two weeks ago, going to see Aunt Eleanor in her creaky house, ostensibly so that she could meet Ella’s fiancé.

The woman across the table from them seemed out of her element in the crowded restaurant. In the dim living room at her home, she was still familiar. Here she was a withered wraith of the woman Ella remembered.

Ella sat back beside Jared, leaning against him a bit in the booth. They both looked at Aunt Eleanor as her hands quivered through the air, plucking up the menu and opening it. The pages shook. Her eyes were brown but the edges of her irises were clouded a pale blue, and her lipstick was a shiny red. Her face was a shade lighter than her neck, a smooth clean foundation that didn’t hide the creases in her skin or the spots of brown and pink that stained her nose and the circles around her eyes. The rouge on her cheeks was spread under her cheekbones and back toward her jaw. Ella could still taste it, a bitter creamy film on her lips.

They sat a while at the table, picking at their plates. Ella and Jared both seemed to hold their breath as Aunt Eleanor cut into her chicken, the knife sawing against the plate with a screech and the fork trembling on the broken skin. They finished without incident, though. When their waiter brought over the bill, Aunt Eleanor paid it without comment, waving her fingers at Ella when she protested.

As they left the restaurant, Jared’s hand folded around Ella’s. She laced her fingers with his, and then slipped an arm through her aunt’s. They stood there at the crosswalk, staring across at the blinking red stick figure that warned them not to move. A car whizzed by. Aunt Eleanor bent forward, looking around the two of them at the empty street. “I think we’re okay,” she said. They both leaned forward too, as if waiting for the cars that weren’t coming, and then they stepped off the curb all at once.