I’d never noticed Albert before the day the girl who sat across from me in Sister Mary Bernadette’s third grade class raised her hand and pointed at the boy sitting in front of her. I was the new kid in school and kept mostly to myself.
Albert had his arms folded on his desk with his head on top of them. His eyes were closed. Everyone looked from Albert to Sister Bernadette. She kept a ruler inside the folds of her robes, and we waited for a saintly display of nun violence.
This time she held her forefinger to her lips. “Let him sleep.” She continued the lesson in her quiet voice.
I stared at Albert, trying to figure out what was so special about him. His eyelashes were long and curved along his freckled cheek, and his wavy hair gleamed blue-black like Superman’s. The girl behind him hissed and stuck her tongue out at me.
During the rest of the lesson, I watched Albert. Once, Sister Bernadette caught me but all she did was smile, which filled me with dread.
The bell rang for recess. Albert raised his head, and hazel eyes still swimming with dreams met mine. He didn’t jump up to rush out to play, but smiled gap-toothed and unhurried.
“I have a mouse,” he said. “It lives behind our icebox.”
I thought about the mouse waiting for Albert to come home after school. It made me feel lonely.
“I leave cheese for it.”
“Mice like cheese,” I said.
“Wanna go outside?” he asked, and not waiting for a reply, “do you have a bike?”
That Spring, Albert slept in class every day. But after school and on weekends, we rode our bikes for ten blocks in both directions. The alleys were the best. The backsides of offices, stores and apartments smelled different than the fronts. There were secrets too, like the bloody mattress we’d stop and stare at until it was hauled away.
Bottle caps either never made it into the garbage, or mysteriously escaped and got stuck in the soft, black pitch that covered the alleys. When the sun hit them just right they glinted like stars. If we brought in ten Dr. Pepper bottle caps, we could see a matinee for free on Saturday. Albert had a big matchbox full of them and promised he’d split them with me.
We rode down a shady alley one afternoon. I pedaled slow to give Albert a chance to catch up. He was bigger than me, but got tired easy. That’s when I spotted the shed. It had windows high on the wall and the corner of one was broken. Albert pulled up next to me.
“Somebody broke that window.”
“Probably threw a rock,” Albert said.
We looked at each other.
“Wanna break the rest?” I asked.
“I dunno.” Albert studied the broken window. He smiled.
“I’ll do it, if you will.”
“Okay, but you first.”
We found some rocks and got back on our bikes for the getaway. We threw on the count of three, breaking separate panes. The tinkle of falling glass shattered our fear and we burned rubber pedaling out of that place, our laughter riding the tailwind.
Me and Albert had a secret now.
“We’re moving away,” Albert told me one day. He didn’t seem the least bit sad about it.
“Are your parents getting divorced?” That’s why I’d had to change schools.
He shook his head. “All of us are going.”
He shrugged. “Someplace where they know all about Leuky Maya. Wanna come over?”
I got ready to pedal. “Maybe we’ll see your mouse!”
We used the back door, through the kitchen. His mom sat at the table making a list. The phone rang and she got up to answer it in the hallway. Albert went to the icebox and pinched off a piece of cheese. He put it in the narrow space between wall and refrigerator.
“Here’s your snack, little mouse. Come and get it.” We waited. I never lost hope that I’d see a quivering nose peek around the corner at the back of the icebox. Albert swore he’d seen the mouse, and I believed him.
“I guess he’s taking a nap,” he said, and stood up. “I gotta go to the bathroom.”
I peered down the side of the icebox, and then went and sat in the living room. I heard the back door slam and Albert’s older brother came in. He threw himself down on the couch like he was angry about something. Michael looked just like Albert, only more like a man. He was in high school and mostly ignored us.
“How was bike ridin’ today? Do anything special?” He had a way of talking that sounded like he was going to make whatever I said into a joke where only he’d laugh. I thought about my secret with Albert.
“Fine,” I said, acting like we hadn’t done anything.
“You really like Albert?” He squinted. Grownups do that when they want to know if you’re lying. “I mean, you like playing with him?”
I nodded and swallowed hard. “We’re collecting bottle caps,” I said. “For the movies.”
Michael rubbed his face with both hands and then ran his fingers through his hair yanking it straight up into points. “Well, Albert won’t be needing his bottle caps ever again. He should just give them to you.” He stood and then sat right back down again. “We’re moving! Just packing up, jobs, school, friends, everything!”
“You don’t know?”
I was gonna ask what Leuky Maya was, but he didn’t give me a chance. “Aw, you’re just a kid,” he said, and stomped out of the room.
Albert came in then. “Wanna ride some more?” he asked, happy like always. I followed him out to the kitchen. His mom sat at the table smoking.
“We’re going out again,” he told her. She put out her cigarette and touched his forehead.
“Maybe you should rest a little more.” She had that worry crease between her eyebrows moms get.
“Albert, hon?” He raised his eyes to hers. “Be careful, okay?”
Before we left, Albert and I stooped down to check the mouse.
The cheese was gone.
I heard the roar of the truck from blocks away and knew it would pull up alongside me.
“Hop in!” Doug said. “We’re goin’ to Dairy Queen.”
My friends crammed the inside of the truck, but Carol Thompson sat in the truck bed with some others. She patted the place next to her. “You come on now and sit here next to me. I saved you a place.”
A whoop went up and the truck rocked on its springs as everyone singsonged, “Yeah, Miiiichal, y’all come on now!”
“Idiots!” I laughed, but my eyes were stuck on Carol. “Some of us have to work.” Mom had asked me to come home right after school in case my brother needed me, but Albert was out riding his bike with his little girlfriend. He always managed to be well enough for that.
Carol smiled, waiting. I pounded the side of the truck and hopped in. “Let’s get this baby on the road!” We roared off, the momentum throwing Carol against me. The wind lashed her blond hair into my face.
“Sorry,” she said, sweeping it away with her hand.
“Let me.” I put my arm around her and held her hair. She snuggled into the hollow of my shoulder, resting her forehead against my chin. My friends’ laughter faded. It was as if Carol and I were alone in the world. Traffic increased and the truck slowed, passing a shady lane. Two children straddled bicycles in front of a ramshackle shed.
“Isn’t that your brother?” Carol asked.
“Yeah.” I lowered my head toward her. “And his girlfriend, Lydia. No telling what they’re up to.”
“Your little brother has a girlfriend?” Her mouth was so near mine that I could taste her breath, sweet and juicy fruity. My answer was a kiss, the lurch of the truck driving my tongue into her mouth.
After Dairy Queen, we didn’t hitch a ride home with the others, but walked hand-in-hand. Occasionally, we’d duck behind trees for more kisses. We entered a forlorn alley, shaded by towering oaks. I guided her around some broken glass next to a dilapidated shed. Almost midway down the alley, we stopped. I leaned my back up against a telephone pole and she stepped between my legs. A breeze saturated with East Texas humidity stirred the folds of her sundress.
“I’m going to miss you so much,” she whispered.
I rubbed my face with both hands and ran my fingers through my hair yanking it up. “I won’t go!”
“Baby, don’t,” Carol said, taking my hands into her own. She raised them to her face and rubbed her cheek against the knuckles of each in turn. Still holding them, she traced my fingertips down her neck, and pressed my palms into her breasts.
“Touch me,” she said, her breath warm on my lips. “Touch me before you go.”
I got home at sunset feeling like something was gnawing its way out of me. Albert squatted next to the refrigerator. He smiled at me. I scowled, but he’d already turned away.
“Come on little mouse,” he crooned.
I slouched down in a chair. “There isn’t a mouse there.”
Albert blinked, still smiling. “Uh huh.” He nodded, wide-eyed. “It eats the cheese I leave.”
“Mama cleans up that cheese.” I sat forward, feeling mean. “She caught that mouse in a trap.” I slapped my hands together hard. Albert lost his squat and sat back on his butt as if I’d just knocked the air out of him.
“Really?” He searched my eyes for the truth and I had to look into his. He reminded me of the old folk sitting on benches in the park. Waiting.
“No, not really,” I said, feigning lightness. “I was just kidding.” I stood. “It’s just that I’m gonna miss my friends.”
Albert held out a piece of cheese. “Wanna feed the mouse?”
I knelt and Albert threw his arms around me. He kissed me on the cheek and I felt the tears clinging to his eyelashes. I lifted him up and hugged him.
“It’s my fault.”
I squeezed my eyes shut. “It’s no one’s fault.” My throat tightened. I turned with Albert still in my arms and peered into the space between icebox and wall. “Hey, I think I just saw him.”
“Can we take him with us when we leave?”
I sat again and stood Albert in front of me. “Sure, why not? He’ll probably crawl up under the icebox and move with us.”
“Will you take care of him when I can’t?”
Surprised, I hesitated, wondering how much he knew, what he really understood. “Yeah, you skunk, I’ll take care of him for ya.” I gave him a noogie. “Hey, I saw you and Lydia stopped in front of some old shed today. What were you two up to?”
Albert grinned and looked away. “It’s a secret.”
I never had so much fun as with Lydia. We’d race our bikes, our legs and hearts pumping. When I’d stop to rest, she’d pull up next to me and smile. We rode real fast through the alley of broken glass. Everyday we’d check it out riding slower and slower until finally we’d stop at the shed and gaze at our work. We didn’t speak during those times. It reminded me of church before everyone gets there.
“Do you hear voices in your head?” I asked. We were leaning on the handlebars, catching our breaths. The corners of her mouth turned down, but she wasn’t mad or unhappy, just thinking. She lifted her shirt and wiped the sweat off her face. Her belly was pale compared to her arms and legs.
“Hmm,” she said, “what do you hear?”
“An old man talks to me.”
Lydia’s eyes got real big.
“I hear him mostly when we ride our bikes.”
“What does he say?”
“Wheee! Go, Al, go!” We laughed and took off on our bikes.
“Is he your grandpa?” she shouted over her shoulder.
I shook my head. “Just some old man.”
We didn’t talk for a while. She headed for the shady alley where we could escape the heat, pedaling slow so I could catch up.
“Can you do this?” She put her feet up on the handlebars and coasted, so I did, too.
“Watch this!” She leapt off the side of her coasting bike and ran a few steps with it. It was harder for me because I had that extra bar across the middle, but I didn’t trip. We rode next to each other, taking it easy.
“I hear a voice in my head sometimes,” she said, “mostly telling me not to do bad stuff. It’s me, though, and it’s kinda old, but not real old. I think it’s my grown up voice waiting for me.” She stopped and turned to me. “Is that how yours is?” Lydia was dead serious, and that’s why she’s my best friend.
“Yeah, only I don’t think mine can wait much longer for me. He’s pretty tired.” We leaned into our bikes, our sweat cooling us down and looked at each other. It was the easiest stare in the world, not mean or worried or wanting anything. Lydia’s eyes were dark brown, like chocolate M&M’s.
We walked our bikes a ways, gazing up at the rustling oaks shading the alley on both sides. Their branches reached across and touched like they were friends. One of them had planks of wood nailed on it making a ladder.
“You wanna climb it?” Lydia asked.
We parked our bikes behind some trashcans. The lowest branch was so thick it didn’t even move when we stood on it. We sat and dangled our feet over the edge. A truck passed under us and people came out to the alley to throw their trash, but the leaves were so thick no one saw us.
She pointed to a big piece of cardboard lying on top of the branches where they crossed each other. “We could build a playhouse here.”
“We could live here,” I said.
Someone laughed below us. Michael and his girlfriend stopped practically right under us. They kissed. I covered my mouth to keep from laughing and Lydia rolled her eyes. Carol mashed herself into Michael. It was like she was trying to get inside him. I imagined cartoon ghosts walking through people and being all tickly and drunk when they come out the other side.
They kept kissing. I couldn’t tell if it was the same kiss they began with or if it was a whole string of little kisses in between breathing. Maybe they breathed into each other’s mouths. Maybe you didn’t need to breathe when you kissed. Maybe people were like fish in water, and when it came to kissing they developed gills.
Lydia nudged me and held her breath, her cheeks puffing out. I copied her. Michael and Carol still kissed. Lydia and I gave each other panicked, wild-eyed looks.
“Will we ever see each other again?” Carol pushed away from Michael.
Lydia and I blew out our breath, and I almost laughed but Lydia held her finger over her lips.
Michael tried to pull her close again, but she put her hands over her face and her elbows got in the way. “It’s only 60 miles,” he said. “I’ll take a bus. I’ll hitch if I have to.”
She dropped her hands to his waist and pulled him to her. He wanted to kiss her again, but she talked against his lips. “How early in the morning are you leaving?”
“Dawn. Mom wants Albert to sleep in the car and be rested when we get there. He has a doctor’s appointment at 11:00 a.m. While he’s there, Dad and I’ll meet the movers.”
“It’s not fair,” Carol tried to pull away, but Michael held on tight. They stood so close I could barely see their lips move. Michael shook his head, still real close to her face, but slow so he didn’t bump her nose. It seemed a really uncomfortable way to talk. “What happens if he, I mean the treatments work, right?”
Michael and Carol floated apart. One minute they were breathing each other’s air and the next an invisible wall was between them. Michael looked stern, like our dad when he doesn’t like what we’re doing but it isn’t bad enough to make him get out of his easy chair.
He reached for her hand. “Let’s walk.”
We stayed quiet, feet dangling, and then Lydia slipped her hand over mine. It felt good holding her hand, like the way the trees must feel, touching each other, strong and safe and not afraid. My old man voice didn’t say anything. But I could feel his joy, lively and wild and ready to try anything.
“Are you taking your mouse?” Lydia asked.
I nodded and we talked about the mouse and then we decided to ride our bikes some more.
Appeared in Ripples published by Minerva Rising, 2017
The only good thing about going to her daddy’s funeral in Texas, besides the prospect of an inheritance, was that Lydia’s foot was in a cast as the result of having a bunion on her little toe removed. Texans, especially old ones, liked to talk about their operations. If her stepmother got aggressive, there might even be a sympathetic reaction–Shirley versus the bereaved, disabled daughter.
“The funeral is in two days,” Shirley called to say. When Lydia didn’t react fast enough, she added, “Don’t feel like you need to come.”
Just hearing that her daddy was dead had shot Lydia down a tunnel of recollection she hadn’t anticipated. The scent of daddy-hunting in the East Texas night saturated her senses, and wet heat–heavy with honeysuckle and cigarette smoke–tickled her nose. She’d been her mom’s sidekick while they searched honky-tonk parking lots for his pickup. Parking lots? More like hard-packed dirt and weeds. When her mom spotted his truck, she’d send six-year-old Lydia into the bar to get him.
He was always happy to see her. “Well, sweetheart, look at you,” he’d say, and sit her on top of the bar and hand her a bag of Fritos and a Dr Pepper. All the drunks would say how pretty she was, and she’d forget about her momma sitting outside in the car.
Lydia heard the flick of a lighter on the other end of the telephone. “I’ll be there,” she said to her stepmother. “My daddy and I had some good times.” She hung up and called her brother in Arizona to coordinate their defenses.
“She was sweet to me when she called,” Bill said, a barely concealed smile in his voice. “Said Daddy’d be real pleased I showed my respect if he wasn’t so dead and finally, thank the Lord above, beyond pleasure.” He laughed, his breath coming in hiccups. “She didn’t say that last part.”
“Yeah, you folks with the penises always get on the good side of Southern belles,” Lydia said. “She told me once that she didn’t think you looked a bit like daddy.”
“Ouch! At least she didn’t ask me for my blood type.” Bill laughed harder.
Long before her father entered the lingering death phase of his decline, Lydia had visited the lake house where he’d retired. She and her dad and Shirley watched an episode of Law & Order where paternity was an issue. Afterward, not only had her stepmother asked for her blood type, but her father had piped up equally eager for the info. “Cause mine is AB negative and there’s only certain outcomes with that.”
I’m not a daughter. I’m an outcome, Lydia thought.
She’d answered that she didn’t know her blood type, but when Lydia returned home to New Mexico, she’d immediately called her mother and asked if there was any chance her daddy wasn’t really her daddy.
There was silence on the line for a split second, and then her mom railed about what a cheating bastard her ex-husband had been. “He tried to take me to bed every time he came out here to visit you kids!” She went on to say that she’d wanted to leave him a year earlier than she did, but he’d deliberately gotten her pregnant with Lydia’s brother.
“So, Bill is for real his kid then?”
A long sigh followed by her mom slamming down the phone was her answer.
“Well, he’s finally dead,” Lydia now said to her brother. “All that AB negative has been drained from his desiccated body.”
“Don’t go dark on me, Sis.” Bill had been barely one-year-old when their parents divorced; he’d never been close to their daddy.
“Could you hear her face twitching over the telephone?” Lydia asked. They always bonded over Shirley caricatures.
“She’s taking meds for that now, but there’ve been some side effects.”
“Try to keep a straight face when she starts.”
“I plan on talking about my toe.”
They coordinated arrival times so sharing a taxi from the hotel to the funeral home would be cheaper, and agreed not to waste more than a night out there. The countdown began, and two days later they were both in the air on their way to East Texas.
Lydia had to change planes at Love Field in Dallas. She’d done this countless times when visiting her father for summer vacation. The switch to a prop plane meant a trek across an airport that had been designed by people with no land or space constraints. Spread out and take what God delivers is how a Texan thought.
She was able to play the disabled card and hitch a ride on an electric airport cart with some old ladies, all of whom wanted to know what happened to her foot. They tsk-tsked with delight when Lydia embellished the story, saying she’d been helping her husband in his tool shed when a power tool got away from her and lopped off her toe.
“Almost got my whole foot!”
When she told them she was on her way to her daddy’s funeral, one plump lady with glasses that magnified her eyes like an owl’s in moonlight patted her hand and said, “You poor thing. Well, funerals can run a person ragged. You just take it easy now.”
Bill was already in the hotel bar when Lydia arrived, and they had time for a quick drink before the viewing. He called a taxi while she changed into a suit and redid her lipstick. At the funeral home, people milled around telling stories on her daddy. Lydia didn’t see her stepmother, but recognized Shirley’s braying laugh from somewhere in the middle of the group.
A skinny old man reeking of Eau de Lifetime Smoker cornered Lydia with a story about her daddy. “After Mel’s last stroke, he decided to take up golf. I don’t think he liked the game so much as driving that golf cart all over kingdom come.” People standing around them leaned in to hear. One even cupped his ear.
“ He drove that golf cart to the trash bins,” a man said. He paused to take a wheezy breath. “And to the liquor store.” Laughter and nods.
“Let me finish my story,” the skinny man said. “One morning I was late for our game and they told me in the pro shop that he’d already gone out.” The room grew quiet. “Sure nuff, I saw his cart but Mel was nowheres in sight. I walked around it, and there he was layin on the ground, lookin at me like he didn’t have a care in the world. He’d fell down and couldn’t get up. ‘Watcha doin there, Mel?’ I asked. ‘Takin a suntan,’ he said.”
Everyone laughed, shaking their heads like they couldn’t believe how clever her daddy was, and then like the pop of a tick with a bellyful of blood, Shirley yelled across the room, “That golf cart is for sale if anyone’s interested.”
The skinny man laughed hard and his face turned the color of scalded flesh. Lydia’s daddy had been red-skinned, too, and had a hooknose like a nickel-Indian, but his eyes were a flirty turquoise. He could also tell a good story on himself.
After he’d had a series of strokes they’d hired a male nurse who wore a badly fitted wig. He’d bathe her daddy and massage his twisted muscles. He was a comforting addition to their lives until Shirley discovered that the man was gay.
“She up and fired him,” Mel said when he told the story to Lydia.
“He was a pervert!” Shirley said. “He might have molested you.”
Mel winked at Lydia. “Beggars can’t be choosers.”
Now that was funny. And anyone who really knew the depth of her daddy’s hedonism couldn’t deny it. Lydia chose not to repeat the story, but remembering it made her smile, which the old folk took as permission to tell more of their PG tales. You can bet they knew more than they were saying in this mixed crowd. Shirley was his third wife, and no telling how many mistresses he’d had. He’d even gotten a vasectomy because of a paternity lawsuit.
The preacher came up and introduced himself. “I want you to know that your daddy found Jesus before he went over,” Reverend Fuller said.
“He prayed?” Lydia asked.
A solemn nod. “He asked for forgiveness.”
“Did he say for what? Specifically?”
The preacher blinked hard. “For all his trespasses.” His lips formed a tight smile.
“Did he mention his children, me or Bill?”
Another blink. “No. He didn’t.”
Lydia set her mouth in the exasperated line she’d learned from Shirley, one corner curled down. “Figures. Well, I want to take some pictures so I’m going in now.”
“Oh, yes. Casket shots are a family tradition. Daddy had some good ones of his own daddy and of his granddaddy.” She tapped her cheek, eyes turned upward. “Come to think of it, when his granddaddy died they posed him sitting in a chair holding his favorite mutt. They couldn’t get the dog to sit still so they killed it and had it stuffed to make the sweetest photo you ever saw.”
Satisfied with the preacher’s stunned silence, Lydia limped into the chapel dragging her cast in an exaggerated way while she circled the casket. She was disappointed that no one had mentioned her injury. She studied her father’s corpse and touched his crossed hands. She stroked his cheek.
He still had some hair, but he was emaciated. Shirley must have starved him. His skin was mottled with liver spots and the mortician hadn’t captured his high ruddy flush. Powder and lipstick had been artlessly applied.
Lydia focused her camera and took a dozen pictures from all angles. When she looked up the pews were filled with an assortment of country folk who stared at her with uncomfortable expressions. She took her time getting to her seat next to her brother and stepmother, making sure to scrape the carpet with her cast. Reverend Fuller stepped up to the podium.
She didn’t hear him, or any of the others who spoke. Lydia stared at her father’s drugstore Indian profile trying to connect this strange stillness with her real daddy. During her parents’ marriage he’d treated her like a princess and she’d adored him. She became an afterthought when they split, but he’d promised her she could come live with him anytime. In the ninth grade, she took him up on the offer, much to Shirley’s dismay.
“He told me I’d never have to be bothered with his children,” Shirley said one day in the bathroom. She’d caught Lydia using her sacred bubble bath. While she scolded her, Shirley’s facial tics rearranged her freckled skin in a Jekyll-to-Hyde time lapse, sweet country girl to evil queen.
The rest of that school year had been marked by her daddy’s absences. When he was home the tension in the house rose. He drank more, and had even taught Lydia how to make his bourbon and water. But mostly he stayed away. The worst event happened one night when she’d been up late. His car pulled into the driveway. Lydia switched off the light, but he’d seen it and came into her room.
“Just reading,” she said when he checked on her. He felt her sweaty forehead and then bent down to kiss her goodnight. All normal stuff until he stuck his pointed tongue in her mouth. It was just a split-second, but Lydia tasted the bourbon. He looked ashamed of himself when he rushed out the door. He never apologized for his behavior. For Lydia, his shame was a sign of love.
The speeches celebrating her maybe father ended, and her stepmother stood up and announced that his boat and all his guns were for sale.
Bill and Lydia accepted condolences and said goodbye to people they didn’t know and would never see again. At the end of it there was only the three of them. Shirley hustled over to her Cadillac without looking back. Before she could get in, Bill asked her for a ride to the hotel.
“Well, I’m kind of in a hurry. There’s potluck and pound cake waiting for me back at the lake house.”
There was no hint in her voice that they were invited. Lydia’s foot throbbed. No one had asked about it. An official-looking man came up and expressed his sorrow over their loss again. He handed Lydia a card, which announced that he was Ned Byrnes, Funeral Director.
“This was the best funeral I’ve ever been to, Ned,” Lydia said, “I hope you’ll do the same for Shirley when her time comes.”
Ned blushed. Bill’s lips parted. Shirley's Adam’s apple bobbed three times.
“I’m sorry. It’s just that I’ve been on my feet, foot, and it really hurts. We’ll call a taxi.” Lydia dug through her purse for her cell, and was surprised to see a tear plop down on the back of her hand. She hadn’t planned on crying. “My toe is gone,” she said to no one in particular. “It was just no good, but I loved it, y’know?”
“It didn’t do much for you, but you were attached to it,” Bill said. He didn’t smile.
“Yeah, now there’s just an empty space. No more possibilities.”
“Meg in the choir lost her whole foot,” Shirley said. “Her voice has never been the same.” The corner of her mouth twitched once, twice and then just kept going so fast that Lydia lost count.
Ned offered to give them a lift, but all of a sudden it was as if Shirley was on fire for them to get in the car. “We’ll manage just fine,” she said, her facial calisthenics so pronounced that poor Ned averted his eyes and scurried off.
Lydia took a deep breath and tried to open the front passenger door. It was locked. “Oh,” Shirley said, and clicked a button at the same moment Lydia tried to open the door again, thereby nullifying the unlock command. The two women continued a furious volley and return of electronic bad timing. Shirley’s mouth-twitches progressed to neck spasms. It was probably time for her medication.
“No one move,” Bill said. He stepped over to the car door and reached through the open window to manually unlock it and then got in the backseat.
A truck pulled up alongside the Caddy. Inside were three ladies from Shirley’s church. “We’ll see you two out at the lake house, I hope?”
The corner of Shirley’s mouth tugged down and stayed there, strangely still. “They’re headed back to their hotel, Ida Mae.”
“You come on out to Shirley’s and try my apple pie now. I’ll give you a lift back to the hotel later.”
A ghastly, and yet satisfying, array of facial tics hop-scotched across her stepmother’s face. “Of course, they’ll come. See ya there!”
She lit a cigarette as soon as the windows were up and the a/c on. No one spoke. Once they turned off the main highway, the road was mostly one-lane, winding and unpaved. The lake house was small, but the yard in front of it was huge and packed with cars. The sound of laughter and the smell of cigarette smoke and barbeque greeted them. An American flag flew at half-mast outside.
The crowd greeted the three of them as if they were a family.
Everything inside looked the same. Same olive-green appliances, same vinyl couch. Lydia eased her way down the hall toward the bathroom, but got sidetracked by a small group gathered in the guest bedroom.
“You must have been very proud of your father!” a man said. There was no trace of irony in his eyes. “Have you seen the memorial Shirley set up? She’s been working on it for years.”
A table was pushed against the wall and in the middle of it was a triangular box with a glass front. Inside, another flag was folded military fashion. A photo of her daddy in full dress uniform smiled out at her, his turquoise eyes sparkling. He was handsome. He was happy. He was a heartbreaker. A picture of a youthful Shirley sat next to his. She posed like a movie queen with her head tilted to the side and her hair falling in waves. She’d been pretty.
The man pointed to another case with lots of ribbons and medals. “Two purple hearts.” He looked at the others. “C’mon folks, let’s leave the child to her memories.”
“My daddy was a cook in the Marines,” Lydia said as they left the room. She’d seen his war album. There were pictures of dead men in the Philippine jungle and of naked girls bathing in mud holes. All the pictures of her daddy showed him peeling potatoes or stirring a huge pot. A cigarette dangling from the corner of his mouth was a permanent fixture.
Her daddy was no hero.
“Oh, there you are,” Shirley said. She came in and stood officiously by the table, as if she were a tour guide. “Your daddy lost or misplaced most of these medals during his roving days.” Her neck muscles spasmed with disapproval. Lydia knew that by roving her stepmother meant the early years of her parents’ marriage, when they’d traveled the South together and lived in a silver Airstream trailer. Bill came into the room.
“Did you know Daddy was a war hero?”
“Why no!” he said, pleasant as he could be. “This is a surprise.”
“Well, he most certainly was!” Shirley’s eyes were dry and bitter. She looked away from them and at the pictures of her young self and her young future husband. Her expression softened. “It took me a long time to get all this together,” she said, the stridency gone from her voice, her twitches quiet.
Lydia felt a rising panic. It was urgent that the lying stop. “He didn’t–”
“Friends warned me about him . . . about the women.” Shirley looked in their direction, but it wasn’t them she was seeing. A quiver started at the corner of her mouth. “I loved him and that’s the end to it.” The tremble stopped and she walked out of the room.
Lydia and Bill stared quietly at the memorial. Over the noise of the wake, they heard Shirley get back to business. “Maybe someone can tell me what these fishing rods are worth,” she shouted. “Mel said they were like magic wands that drew the fish to the hook.”
“You okay, Sis?”
“Those rods were good.”
“They had magic,” Bill said.
“No. It was him. He was the magician. Look at the turnout he got.”
Bill pointed with his chin at the medals. “They’re probably Chinese knockoffs.”
“He lied to her.”
“Maybe he did you a favor by staying out of your life?” Bill watched Lydia with soft eyes. “It’s okay to love him. He’s your dad.”
“Is he? Really?”
“He’s what you got.”
“You think Shirley would let me have one of the medals?”
“That Purple Heart would look good on a jean jacket.”
Lydia punched Bill on the shoulder and then leaned against him. He wrapped an arm around he. She focused on the photo of her father and his young smiling face, all his sins in an unplanned future.
“My Hero,” she whispered. She loved her daddy and that was the end to it.
Appeared in the Bacopa Literary Review, 2015
The Sandoval Sisters' Secret of Old Blood
"We know there are other moments in a woman’s life when stones are cast in her pond, and as the ripples dissolve, everything changes." Theme inspiration from Minerva Rising. My response was Shattered Glass, a story about my first best friend, Albert.
The Sandoval Sisters' Secret of Old Blood