by Patricia Abbott
I hadn't seen Daddy in more than eight years when he knocked at the door. “Know who I am?” he asked, sticking his shoulder between the door and its frame. Shocked at the sight of him, my tongue lay glued to the roof of my mouth. “Louellen, right?” he said, stabbing a finger in my face.
I'd missed out on some things growing up without a father—even if that father had to be Rex Knight but maybe he'd gotten reformed like the brochures in the kiosks at Miami Correctional Facility promised. So I let him in. He had birds tattooed nearly everywhere; I couldn't stop looking at ‘em. People had told me he was a liar, a thug, a drunk. But no one had told me about this.
The door slapped shut and he jumped, having forgotten the ways of that door. He sniffed. “Star still making her stuffed cabbage?” It was Brussels sprouts, but I'd heard he didn't take contradiction well. “Hey, I know that chair. Used to be in your grandma's house.” His finger stabbed the air again and I backed away a smidgen. Gran's house was empty now, windows boarded up. No one was buying houses in northern Indiana .
“Gran's in the cemetery back of the Assembly of God church.” We were saving up for a headstone. Gordon tried to get Mom to scatter her ashes, but Gran didn't much like the out-of-doors save for her porch. “Remember how she wore those nets so her hair wouldn't waft,” Mom said.
“Mind if I sit down?” Daddy smoothed his hair back behind his ears. “Old Star probably banned my name.” He'd read my mind as I guess fathers can.
“I remember you started a fight at someone's birthday party once,” I blurted out. He'd picked up a yellow cake to heave when some guy wrestled him to the ground. The birds were pecking at it when we pulled out, gravel flying. “Who gives a fuck about a lousy Betty Crocker cake?” he shouted out the car window. People repeated that saying at every birthday party. Sometimes they laughed; sometimes not.
“That could be a lot of times, Hon,” Daddy said. “Brother home?”
“Bags groceries till six. They call him Trig at school.”
That too, but Gordon kept a shotgun under his bed. It'd hung over Gran's fireplace once.
I'd claimed her porcelain spaniels, which fell off my shelf and broke in a thunder storm and a summer bonnet that smelled like her till the scent seeped out. More than once I wished I'd taken that gun.
“Gordon. Another fruity name Star thought up.” He walked over to the mantel where a photograph sat. “What's he now? Fourteen?”
“Sixteen. I was eighteen in June.” The frame in his hands needed dusting.
“Graduate?” He blew the dust willy-nilly and sneezed.
I nodded. “I got a job now, Daddy. And Mom's boyfriend gave me a sweet deal on a Ford Escape.” I figured Daddy might not know about Escapes where he'd been. Or maybe about Mom's boyfriend either.
“Black job outside, huh?” He yawned and slammed the photo down. “Don't guess your mother'd let me camp here.” I shook my head. “I'm done in, Lou. How ‘bout a lift in that fancy car outside.”
I drove Daddy out to the By and Bye Motel, waiting till he let himself into Room Fourteen, watching while he pulled the curtains shut.
It was hard not telling'em that Daddy was back, but it was nice having a secret. Usually it was Gordon and Mom whispering on the phone, shutting up when I came in the room. “You never could keep a secret,” Mom said. But someone needed to give Daddy a chance and maybe it could be me.
Mom's Escape was inky blue, but it looked like mine in the dusk. She tramped into the house, her blonde hair pulled back in a pony tail. “Damn!” She looked around. “Been cleaning, Louellen?” She yanked the rubber band out of her hair and shook it like a dog. It looked great right away—like it was meant to be worn like that. Gray eyes fixed, hip jutting out, she scanned every surface. “Have a guy in here?” she asked hopefully. Mom couldn't understand how I could get to age eighteen without a single date.
“Don't know any guys.” Only the Mennonites or Amish guys stuck around after high school, and they kept to their own kind. I wasn't gonna wear long homemade dresses, bake pies or go on a chaperoned date to seem normal.
“You're a strange one, Mr. Grinch,” Mom shouted after me.
Andy let us goof off when it wasn't busy—which was most of the time. People ‘round here don't think much about purchasing office supplies after dark. Ten years ago, it looked like this town might amount to something. The only places coming into town now were dollar stores and no-name groceries that sold lotto tickets and cashed checks.
Saturday, I worked my regular hours. Daddy showed up near closing time. “What time you done?” His eyes flitted around like he was looking for something he couldn't find.
“'Nother hour. Need a ride home?”
“Look, Louellen, okay if I use your vehicle?”
I thought only cops used the word vehicle, but maybe guys in prison did, too. Probably the language gets passed back and forth. Daddy was still wearing his clothes from two days ago, and his hair looked even greasier.
“I'll have it back by nine-thirty.” His eyes still scanned the place. “You gonna hand over those keys?” he said after a second.
Nine-thirty passed and Andy asked if I wanted a lift. “I don't like leaving you here alone,” he said, looking at the deserted strip mall. Half the stores had handmade FOR LEASE signs on their windows. Tacky. We could have printed them a professional sign for a dollar.
“I'm goin' over to the 7-ELEVEN to wait for my ride,” I told him.
“Want my cell?”
“Got Mom's,” I lied.
At 10:40, I tossed my Big Gulp and headed home, praying I'd beat Mom. She'd figure my car was inside the garage like it always was. I called the motel and asked for Room 14. “He's not in, hon,” the lady told me. So I stayed up wondering when and if Daddy would return my car. Mom came in around two.
“Been out already?” Mom asked the next morning, looking out at my car as she filled the kettle, shivering with the new autumn cool.
I'd spotted it a minute before, too late to do anything but lie. “Ran down to the post office first thing. Justin emailed and asked me to send him….a Colts' teeshirt.” Another lie. They were mounting.
“Since when does Justin Lubershawn like football?”
Justin was in Iraq . Sometimes I sent him a package—usually baked goods from the Amish ladies.
“You seemed kind of wired,” Mom said, turning the burner up.
“Just worrying. We didn't take in squat yesterday. Pretty soon Wal-Mart'll be the only store in town.”
“You should be taking some classes,” Mom said, starting up again. “Nothing's gonna happen for you at Staples. Hell, there's no future for Staples at Staples ‘round here.” She poured water over the Taster's Choice granules. “Why do you have to make the same mistakes as me, Lou?” She turned around, pouring a second cup of water over her oatmeal. I could feel a lecture coming on, but she surprised me and stuck a spoon into her oatmeal instead.
Daddy was waiting outside the store at the end of my shift. “Give me a ride home, Louellen?” His foot tapped a little tune on the concrete before he slid into the passenger side. “Listen, I need you to help me out. Fellow outside of town owes me some dough from way back. I want you drive me out there after work tomorrow.”
“You can borrow my car,” I said reluctantly.
“I'd rather if you drove.” When I didn't say anything, he added, “Let my license lapse.” I nodded. “Pick me up at the motel when you're done work.” He cleared his throat. “Maybe you should tell Star you're gonna be a little late. She know I'm back?”
I shook my head. “How late?”
“He's ten miles outside of town. I'll just run inside and pick up the money.” Daddy looked out the window. “Won't be any trouble at all. He's in a chair, I hear. Half-blind, too.”
I told Mom Andy had invited me out. The lies were adding up. “Starts out small with men like him,” she'd warned me last time she mentioned Daddy. “Little favors. Seems like nothing much at first.” This was back when I wanted to go out to see him out at Miami .
“Andy's such a drip,” Gordon said. He was lying on the sofa watching the cartoon network with the sound turned way up. I noticed a tattoo on his forearm. A red hawk. “You'd do better with those Amish boys.”
“Turn that set down,” Mom shouted. “You just got yourself used to that high volume, Gordon.”
Daddy was waiting outside Room Fourteen the next night, more jittery than the day before, a bulge in his pocket. He‘d probably been nipping at that flask. We traveled north on the Interstate. “Get off at the next exit,” he said hoarsely, peering through the dark. “Right here,” he hollered way too soon. I would've plowed into trees if I exited where he said.
“Look for a lane on the left. There's a mailbox, a battered metal thing stuck in the ground. There it is.” I swerved so suddenly any car behind could've hit us. But we were the only car. We headed down what was more trail than road, tree branches scrapping the windshield, small stones crunching under the tires.
“ Cal used to have a bike,” Daddy said. “Whipped right through these shitty weeds.” He waved his arms as if the brush was scratching at his face. “Now, I don't know. Whoa, Lou. Stop here and keep the car running.” He sat there for a minute and we both looked at the house. One lone light shone, a forty-watt bulb's worth of shine at most. Things were quiet until a dog sleeping under the porch came out and began to bark. It wasn't the kind of bark you worried about, but it sure told anyone inside that he had company. The door didn't open.
“Daddy, it don't look like he knows you're coming.”
Daddy shook his head. “Never mind that. Now look, when you see me come flying out, pull right up to the door. This guy ain't gonna like what I say, and you never can tell. He might try to hold out on me. Do something anyway.”
I was getting a bad feeling. “You better tell me now, Daddy. What're you gonna do in there?”
“Just do like I say. Stomp right on that gas pedal when you see me. Don't turn the car off neither. You gotta enough gas?”
I nodded. “Why don't I pull up there right now?
“Cause he'll hear you, girl. He'll be ready for me.” I looked at the barking dog and wondered if Daddy didn't hear it. Why Daddy didn't know that anyone inside that place would be ready for him. Maybe Daddy was as dumb as Mom said. She was eighteen when she met him— just like me now.
I shut my eyes and when I opened them he was gone. I stuck my Ipod in my ear and listened to a track or two from Sick Puppies. Then an old tune from Evanescence, and another two or three from Lil Wayne. None of ‘em took my mind off what was going on in the cabin though. No music on earth coulda done that. I didn't believe Daddy had been reformed. Or that I could ever believe what he said.
Suddenly, Daddy came tumbling out the door, holding his shoulder, and screaming. I yanked the plugs just in time to hear him yell, “Girl! Girl! Where are you? Jesus Christ!”
I was about to stomp on the pedal when another car leaped out like a panther. Probably eased in when I was listening to those tunes. Maybe during, “All the Same,” which kind of haunts me. Didn't take me more than two seconds to realize it must've been Mom. In the dark, our cars were twins. Daddy yanked open the door and climbed right in Mom's car, thinking it was me.
I sat there frozen, listening as the car disappeared through the patchy fog and the twisted trees. Turning on my headlights to go, I picked up something on the gravel. A gun. Daddy must have dropped it scrambling into Mom's car. I got out and grabbed it, figuring to return it to him. I drove home as slow as I dared. Worrying about meeting up with a cop—me with a gun in the car, worrying too about what Mom would say.
An hour passed before both Mom and Gordon came home. Neither said a word to me although they must have followed me from Staples, to the motel, to that cabin in the woods. They must've known what I was up to, found out Daddy was back in town and dogging me.
What had they done with him? Had they taken him back to prison? Over the state line? Had they finished him off and dumped his body somewhere? Would he disappear without a trace? I'd heard tales that Mom was as tough as her husband once, that she knew how to take care of things, wasn't afraid to lay a man out. And Gordie, well, he was Trig.
“Had your dinner yet, Louellen?” my mother said, slapping some placemats on the table.
“Nothing much,” I said.
She motioned me to my seat and Gordon came in and sat down too. Mom pulled a bucket of chicken and the fixings out of her carryall. “Picked some up earlier today,” she said. “Thought we might be hungry ‘bout now. Good thing, too cause nothing was open.”
Nobody said a word ‘til the chicken was nothing but gristle and bones. Soon one, then the other, drifted off to bed. Oh, I tell you those two were good at keeping secrets. But I had a secret hidden under my bed. I wondered if I remembered the way back to that cabin, to that half-blind cripple and his money, to my way out of this town. I wondered too if some of Mom's sleeping pills that I had put in their mashed potatoes might make that darn dog shut up. He was a noisy bastard.