“Faith, I may be in a bit of a situation here.”
It’s a Sunday morning. Vincent and I are still in bed. Vincent draws his index finger across his throat when he realizes that it’s my Dad on the phone.
“What’s going on? I can’t hear you. Can you speak up?”
“I said I’ve got myself into a bit of a situation.”
The noise in the background sounds like ten people are shouting into the phone all at once.
“What is it then?”
Vincent is pretending to shoot himself in the temple—his fingers shaped like a gun. I can’t understand why it’s so noisy on the line. Usually, my father’s home on Sundays, settled in his wide leather chair in the living room, surrounded by a mess of newspapers—the New York Times, the Washington Post, the local Springfield Republican.
In a rush, my father tells me his story. I can’t make out most of it except for the words “jail” and “harassment.”
“Wait a minute. Where are you?”
Vincent gets out of bed. I watch him cross the bedroom floor, yank open the closet door, and pull his robe out.
“You are my one phone call so I’m calling to request a bailout. I’ll pay you back promptly. It’s just a terrible misunderstanding. I’m sure all charges will be dropped right away.”
I’m trying to put this all together as quickly as I can.
“Oh God, Dad, what did you do?”
“If I could just get out of here, I could put it all to rights.”
“Just tell me what you did.”
As I listen to my father’s explanation, I’m not surprised to hear that it involves Kate Rose, the widow who moved into his neighborhood a few months ago. She’s living in the Wrights’ old house, a family I used to babysit for. The Wrights had two kids and a tabby cat that would swish its tail around my legs whenever it was hungry.
The day that Kate moved in, my father asked me to bake some banana bread. I thought I was making it for him, but he took it right out of my hands and marched it over to her house. He told me, afterward, how fascinating she was, that her late husband was in the Foreign Service so she knew a lot about world politics.
“Well, I’d been seeing a lot of Kate but, lately, every time I stop by her house, she doesn’t answer the door even though her car’s in the garage,” he’s telling me now. “And when I call her, the phone just rings and rings. Then, last night, I was visited by the rudest of all policemen. Stood on my doorstep like he owned the place, saying that Kate’s filed a complaint against me.”
“She called the cops on you?”
This gets Vincent’s attention.
“I asked for his badge number, which is my right as a private citizen, by the way, and then I told him that I didn’t like his tone, and the conversation went downhill from there.”
“So he arrested you?”
Vincent’s back by the bed, scribbling on a pad of paper. He thrusts a note at me. What was he charged with? He’s an Assistant District Attorney for the city of Springfield so he knows all about this kind of thing.
“What were you charged with?” I ask.
“Nothing that I know of.”
I shake my head at Vincent; he rolls his eyes and writes something else.
“There must’ve been something. They can’t just keep you overnight for no reason,” I say, reading from Vincent’s notes.
“Possibly disorderly conduct.”
My father must’ve cupped his hand over the phone because suddenly I can hear his voice, for the first time, very clearly. It’s like he’s whispering directly into my ear.
“Faith, they tell me I must go now. But if you could come and get me as soon as possible, I’d owe you one.”
As I’m getting dressed, Vincent gives me a list of things to do. He wants me to find out who the arresting officer was. I also need to find out the exact charges, when the court date is, if there are any additional conditions attached to his release.
I’m relieved when he doesn’t offer to go to the jail with me. My father has never hidden the fact that he hates Vincent. In fact, he’s despised the entire legal profession ever since his divorce from my mother. My mother’s lawyer, Raymond Lloyd—a man who, according to my father, wore a pinky ring, polyester leisure suits, and a tangle of gold chains around his thick neck—fell in love with her during the divorce proceedings. As soon as the papers were signed, my mother and Raymond moved to California together. I was eight years old at the time.
But it isn’t only what Vincent does for a living that my father dislikes. He’s positive that he’s wasting the best years of my life, that I should be—at this point—in a steady relationship with a man who is completely devoted to me. Vincent and I have been off-and-on for years. The deepest commitment he’s shown so far was when he moved in with me six months ago.
I sit in the jail’s waiting room for forty-five minutes while they process his papers. When Dad comes out, I think he’ll start complaining about how he’s been wronged by the legal system, how he’s going to write a letter to the Editor of the Springfield Republican about the general lack of civility found in law enforcement. Instead, he concentrates on putting his belt back on. Then he’s mostly silent during the car ride back to his house, only grunting a little when I’m speeding up too fast, sighing when I’m not braking soon enough at the lights. He didn’t let me get my license until I was nineteen, and even then I had to practice with him in the empty bank parking lot every Sunday afternoon for months.
I park in front of his house. My father puts his hand on the door latch but doesn’t move.
“Well, I obviously need to talk to Kate as soon as possible.”
“Dad, you can’t do that.”
“But all of this is just a big mistake.”
This has been my father’s problem ever since I can remember. He gets fixated on helping certain women and then he doesn’t know when to stop. When I was ten, a neighbor down the street, Greta McCall, was abandoned by her husband after he met some showgirl in Vegas. My father started mowing her lawn every weekend. Then he put up her storm windows. Then he repainted her mailbox. He even walked her dog for her, a sway-backed Basset Hound with a large, fleshy growth on top of its head. Greta McCall finally put her house on the market and moved into a condominium in Hartford, and the general buzz around the neighborhood was that my father was the one who drove her away.
There were others after Greta McCall: Ellen Lovejoy, a single mother who was dealt a devastating diagnosis of breast cancer—my father drove Ellen to her chemo appointments and sent flowers after every radiation treatment; Sherri Williams, who was fired from our local branch of People’s Bank when her cash drawer came up short three days in a row—he wrote a glowing letter of recommendation for Sherri and bought her a blue pinstriped suit for her future interviews. None of these women ever returned his affections.
“You can’t contact Kate,” I say to him now.
“Why would I expect you to understand? You don’t know the first thing about love. Your sum total of experience with love has been with what’s-his-name.”
“Please call Vincent by his correct name.”
“I prefer to objectify him, if you don’t mind.”
“Actually, I do mind, Dad.”
“And I wanted so much more for you.”
“Maybe you shouldn’t be concentrating on me and my failings at this particular point. I just bailed you out of jail, remember? Why don’t you tell me what really happened?”
“Kate isn’t thinking straight. It happens sometimes when you’re grieving. It doesn’t matter. I forgive her.”
“I don’t think she wants to be forgiven, Dad. She probably wants to be left alone.”
My father looks over at me and smiles. “Do you know that there are two ways to tell if someone loves you? One is if they can’t keep their eyes off you. Two is if they can’t bear to look at you. Do you see where I’m going with this?”
“If you’re suggesting that Kate Rose loves you—”
My father reaches over to pat my hand. “Faith, you just have to trust me on this one.”
Back in my apartment, Vincent and I get into a fight. He wants me to really confront my father about his behavior. I shouldn’t back off or let him get the last word.
“If he thinks he hates lawyers now, wait until he has to spend thousands of dollars on them to defend himself. You’ve got to do something to stop this,” Vincent says.
“But what can I do?”
“I don’t know but you can at least try.”
“Hey, aren’t you the one who thinks I should have nothing to do with him?”
I made the mistake once of telling Vincent stories about my childhood, details about some of the women that my father chased after. Now, whenever Vincent talks about my father, he says, “After all he’s put you through.”
But it’s never been that easy for me. This is the man who—when I was in third grade and braids were all the style—taped three, long pieces of string on the back of a kitchen chair so he could practice plaiting on something else besides my hair. He was the only parent to sit on a folding chair in the corner of the Y’s windowless basement every Saturday afternoon for a year to watch me—a head taller than all the other girls and awkwardly uncoordinated—struggle through tap dancing lessons. On the night before my Junior Girl Scout troop’s bridging ceremony, he stayed up all night sewing my badges onto my sash, ripping out stitches again and again until all the triangular badges fit together.
“Maybe he was just trying to be friendly,” I say to Vincent.
“So now you’re defending him? Unbelievable. That’s the problem, don’t you see?”
“No, it’s not. I’m not the problem here. How can you say that?”
I’m close to tears. Vincent looks disgusted. He hates it when I cry. In all the time I’ve known him, I’ve never even seen him teary. That’s another thing my father can’t stand about him. He claims that Vincent’s cold, emotionless, that there is no light in his eyes.
I have to do something so I decide to go over to Kate Rose’s house. She opens the door right away.
“Hello, I’m Faith—”
“The daughter. I had a feeling you’d show up.”
Kate has deep set brown eyes. Wobbly strokes of pink lipstick color her thin lips.
“Well, there seems to be a problem, and I’m here to see if I can help in any way.”
“Your father has already left me two messages this morning, all about his arrest.”
“I just want to find out exactly what happened. I’m not getting much information from him.”
“This is so embarrassing for me. I’ve just moved into town. I don’t know anyone.”
“I’m sorry. I want to come right out and say that.”
“When your father started coming around, I was happy at first. Maybe I gave him the wrong impression. I don’t know. But he started stopping by every day. And then it was twice a day. Twice a day and a phone call. Twice a day and two phone calls. It just kept increasing. I told him that all this attention he was giving me, well, it just wasn’t right. But it was like he didn’t hear me. He went on and on about some home improvements he wanted to help me with. Relandscaping my front yard. That was his big idea. Pull up all the yews. Replace them with something flowering.”
I look down at the yew bushes that border the front of her house, and I can’t help but think that my father’s right. They are overgrown, ragged, tangled up in one another. One bush is dying on the street side only, thinned out so I can see withered, brown branches deep inside its frame.
“Anyway, a few days ago, I really had it out with him. I told him that I no longer appreciated his visits, that I needed some space. So what does he do? He comes back the next day with red roses. He said that he assumed that roses were my favorite flower because of my last name. It’s gotten so I’m a prisoner in my own home, hiding whenever he stops by. So I called the police. I made it clear to the officer that I wanted a warning issued, that was all. I have no idea why they arrested him.”
“I think he mouthed off to the cop.”
Kate raises her eyebrows. I understand that I should assure her that I will see to it that my father never contacts her again. But I open my mouth to speak and I can’t. I’m just opening and closing my mouth for a few seconds. At first, she looks irritated and then she steps forward and puts her hand on my arm.
“Faith? Are you OK?”
“I’m sorry,” I manage to get out, “but no, I’m not.”
She invites me into her house then, leading me straight into the living room where two flowered sofas with plump pillows are separated by a white rug. The last time I was in this house, I had to wade through plastic dump trucks, naked Barbies, wooden puzzle pieces—the kind with knobs.
Hanging on the wall above the mantel is an oversized photograph of a man and a woman. The man is behind the woman with his hands on her shoulders. The woman is Kate, but a much younger version of the person I am with now. She has darker hair, an unlined face, a firm jawline, but the same sunken-in eyes.
Kate clears her throat behind me. “So, Faith—”
“I know how horrible this is for you. What my father does—well, it’s been going on for a long time. He gets attached to one particular person and just goes overboard.”
“So he’s done this kind of thing before?”
Kate just stares at me.
“In fact,” I continue, “it’s kind of defined my entire life.”
She is giving me no indication that she wants to hear more—about me or my father—but I can’t stop myself.
“Like the summer I turned thirteen? I remember it as the summer when he taught Ms. Leary down the street—I’m sure you’ll meet her soon and she’ll tell you all about it—how to drive a stick shift. Every evening after dinner, there they’d be, starting and stopping, stalling out over and over again. Or the Christmas of 2002? Yeah, that was when he strung icicle lights on Mrs. Santaniello’s roof.”
I could tell her more, how when I was growing up, I was known as the girl with the bizarre father, that my father’s behavior marked me more than the good grades that I worked so hard for, or the fact that I was the President of the Model UN club throughout high school, or the truth that I was oddly tall, almost six feet, and strangely skinny.
“Well, it shouldn’t have been like that for you,” Kate says. “And you shouldn’t have to get involved like this now.”
“I’ve only got my father and he’s only got me so I really don’t have a choice.”
“Yes, I heard about your mother.”
Kate looks down, toes the soft rug with her patent-leather capped shoe.
“Which part? I mean, there’s a lot you can say about my mother.”
My mother used to drink too much. She’d pass out anywhere—on the kitchen floor, in the backyard, in the front seat of her car wherever it was parked. My father was adept at cleaning up after her, making sure she was safe. Then she decided, on my seventh birthday, to sober up, and she began attending AA meetings as religiously as she’d once gone for the bottle. The minute she got sober, she wanted a divorce. When she took up with Raymond Lloyd, full custody of me fell on my father because it was understood—although never overtly stated—that Raymond didn’t care for children.
“It’s none of my business,” Kate says, still looking down.
“No, it’s OK.”
“I want you to know that I never pried. It’s just that your father talked a lot. He’d go on and on about you and your mother and her drinking and how he had to cope with that and what a shame it was for you to be brought up like that.”
“Oh, it wasn’t that bad. Or maybe it was. I don’t know.”
Kate smiles a little but she doesn’t look particularly happy.
“He woke me up in the middle of the night once,” I say because I want her to understand something, I want her to see what kind of man my father is. “He picked me up out of bed and carried me outside to the car, helped me get my seatbelt on in the back seat. I thought we were going on a magical trip. I mean the sky was so black but it was filled with all these stars. I could actually feel my heart pounding, that’s how excited I was. He always could do that for me when I was a kid—make me think that something wonderful was about to happen.”
I don’t tell her the rest of the story about that night, how, next, he brought my mother out to the car and once I saw her, I understood that we weren’t going anywhere special. He had to take her to the ER to stitch up her hand. She’d cut herself on a broken bottle, and I was too young to be left in the house by myself.
There’s a moment when Kate and I are just staring at each other. Then I whirl around and point to the photograph above the mantel.
“This must be your husband, your late husband,” I say.
She rocks back on her heels to see the photograph better.
“Yes. George. That’s him.”
With his fat cheeks and puffed out chest—I can almost see his shirt buttons straining at the extra weight around his waist—he looks rich and inordinately well fed.
“He had a bad heart,” Kate says. “It was genetic. His father had heart problems. His grandfather also. Faith, look, I appreciate your stopping by. But I don’t think there’s much you can do for me. This really isn’t something that you’re responsible for. You do understand that, don’t you?”
“But I have to try something. My boyfriend, Vincent, he got mad at me about all of this. He thinks there should be something I can do about it.”
“Oh, so I guess you’ve heard all about him too. You probably know how much my father hates him. Vincent’s not big on commitment. He doesn’t ever want to get married. He says that it isn’t important. He doesn’t ever want to get tied down like that. Sometimes I’m OK with it. Other times I’m not. But it drives my father crazy. A couple of months ago, we tried to meet for dinner. The three of us—Vincent, my father, and me. It was a complete disaster. Dad only talked to me. Anytime Vincent tried to say a word, Dad pretended he couldn’t hear him.”
“That’s too bad. I have a son, Allan. He probably doesn’t visit as often as he should but I don’t complain. He’s got his own life. That’s our role as parents, you know. To let go.”
I should be agreeing with her at this point. I should tell her that she’s right, that she’s probably been an exemplary parent, that because of her good parenting skills, Allan is a well-adjusted young man. And then I should leave.
Instead, I gesture toward the sofa, asking for permission to sit down. I actually pretend that I feel a little faint as a stalling technique. When I sit, Kate asks me if I want some water, if that would make me feel better, and I say yes because, honestly, my mouth does feel a little dry but also, I know it’ll buy me some time. She leaves the room—from what I remember, she’ll take a right out of the living room, circle past the basement door and the half bath to make her way to the eat-in kitchen toward the back of the house. I wait to hear the rumble from the fridge’s ice maker before I jump up. I need to figure out what I’m going to say to her next, how I’m going to get out of this situation, still having made a difference. I can’t go back to Vincent without some kind of resolution.
I’m pacing the living room floor, passing the front bay window, and that’s when I see my father outside. He’s standing on the sidewalk, facing my car. When he turns around, he looks baffled for a second. Then he starts up the path to Kate’s house. As he gets closer, he lifts his chin and his smile widens. I get to the door before he can ring the bell.
“You are not here,” I say.
“What are you doing here?”
“You can’t be here,” I repeat.
“Well, you shouldn’t be here either.”
“I’m here to get you out of the mess you made.”
I hear footsteps behind me.
Kate is holding a tall glass of ice water but she doesn’t offer it to me.
“Hello, Kate. Wonderful to see you, as always. If you could spare a few minutes, I’d really appreciate it,” my father says.
I’m blocking the doorway; otherwise, he’d wiggle past me. He’s wearing a navy blue blazer, light colored chinos, a yellow and blue striped tie. His loafers are shiny, and there’s a penny tucked into the lips-shaped slots of each shoe.
“Actually, I’ve already been talking to Faith this morning,” Kate says.
“Well, isn’t it great that you two have met? Isn’t my daughter delightful?”
“Yes, she is.”
Kate doesn’t sound convinced. For a second, the skin on her face looks like it’s been unnaturally tightened, as if she’s in a wind tunnel or something.
“We’ve been having a good conversation, Dad, and you’re interrupting it. If you could go home, I’ll catch up with you in a minute.”
“Uh, no, I’m not going home. Maybe you should be the one to go home.”
My father tries to appeal to Kate directly, tilting his head to catch a good glimpse of her. “Kate, if I could take up just a few minutes of your time.”
“But there’s nothing to talk about.”
She’s taken a step back from both of us.
“Of course there is. I want to start by saying that if I’ve done anything—any one thing—to offend or upset you, well, I’m here to make good on it.”
My father puts his hand on his chest.
“No, I don’t want that. I don’t want anything more to do with you.” Kate looks at me. “Or you either, Faith. I’m sorry if that sounds cruel.”
“Hey, I was trying to help,” I say.
Kate frowns. “Really? How exactly were you helping? By telling me all about your mother and your boyfriend? How is that helping me?”
“What? What was she saying to you?” my father asks.
“Never mind,” I say to him. “Kate was asking about our family. And then she wanted to know about Vincent.”
“No,” Kate says, raising her voice, “that’s the thing. I didn’t ask. I didn’t want to know. I’m sorry you have a troubled mother. I’m sorry that your father disapproves of your boyfriend. But none of that has anything to do with me.”
“Don’t even get me started on the boyfriend,” my father says. “Can you even really call him a boyfriend? They break up as often as I change my underwear. What does that man really know about Faith?”
“I don’t want to be involved in this. I just want to be left alone right now. If George was alive, this wouldn’t be happening. Neither one of you would be here. But he’s not. George is gone and I’m alone and nothing either one of you can do or say is going to make it any better.”
The second the tears slip out of the corners of Kate’s eyes, my father springs into action like a dog that’s just been thrown a ball. He nudges past me and is fastened to her side before I can react.
“It’s OK,” he says to her. “Let it all out. It’s good to cry. The world is full of loss and pain, but the one consolation we have is each other. It’s a bad thing, what’s happened to you. No one should have to go through it. But you’re not alone. I want to assure you of that.”
I have to admit. He’s actually quite good at this. He’s rubbing Kate’s back as she shudders and sobs, and suddenly I can see that he’ll be ready to do the same thing for me some day, if Vincent and I finally break up for good.
“Faith, go get some Kleenex,” my father instructs, and that gets me back in the house also. I find a box of tissues on top of the toilet in the half bath, exactly where the Wrights used to keep theirs. Kate and my father are now in the living room, sitting on the couch together. She’s crying into her hands. I hand her the box.
“I don’t know what came over me,” she says. She plucks a tissue out of the opening and another one pops up.
“It happens. Don’t worry about it,” my father says.
“It was so unexpected. George left for work one day and it was just like any other day. I said, ‘I love you. Have a good one.’ And that was the last time I ever saw him.”
Crumpled up, tear-sogged tissues fill her lap.
“It was sudden, which is a blessing. You don’t want your loved ones to suffer.”
She looks up at the photograph above the mantel. “But I never saw him again.”
“And I’m so, so sorry for your loss.”
Then my father makes a tactical error. He’s gotten too confident. Or maybe he’s just trying to show off in front of me.
“But always remember that life,” he says, throwing his head back to look up at the ceiling for a second, “is for the living.”
“With time, of course, you’ll want to open yourself up to other possibilities. There could be a whole new world out there for you. There are many types of love in the world but never the same love twice. Have you ever heard that quote? It’s a favorite of mine.”
Kate holds herself very still. Then she stands up. The tissues fall to the carpet and surround her feet.
Her words come out in spurts, as if she’s short of breath.
“Out. I don’t want you in my house. I don’t want to see you again, ever. I will contact the police if you even come near me. You cannot call me or stop by or anything. Do you understand?”
“I’m sure you really don’t mean that.”
“I mean every word of it.”
My father looks at me. “Sometimes, Faith, when people are going through emotional turmoil, they lash out at others.”
“That’s not what’s happening here. I’m not lashing out at you. I’m just telling you the truth. Please, listen to me. I love George. I will always love George. Not you. Ever. It will never, ever be you.”
My father and I leave together. He seems a little subdued until he asks me if I’ve come to my senses yet about Vincent. I don’t answer him because there’s nothing to say.
He’s the first to drive away. I know that Kate is peering out from one of her windows, waiting for me to leave also. But I can’t stop thinking about the moment when I caught my father outside, right before he came up to the house. For a second, he looked exhausted, spent, horribly old. Slumped shoulders. His arms dangling by his side. His chin drooping towards his chest. His head jutting forward just enough to emphasize a hump at the base of his neck. The sun hitting the top of his head in such a way that his hair looked thin and deathly white. Then, when he started toward Kate’s house, he shook it all off. The fatigue just flew off him as he straightened his posture, lifted his knees to high-step each stride, and stretched his mouth out into a wide smile. And I wish that Vincent had seen it also: my father’s extraordinary effort—no matter how misguided—to love someone, his attempt to compensate for sorrow.
I stand outside the house for so long that Kate comes out to check on me. She asks me why—why in the world—I haven’t left yet.
Catherine Uroff’s short fiction has appeared in Floodwall, Red Wheelbarrow, Green Hills Literary Lantern, The Bellevue Literary Review, and other journals. Her blog on the latest books she’s read and other literary musings can be found at catherineuroff.tumblr.com.
Q: What was your inspiration for this story?
A: The father in this story has been on my mind for several years. I wanted to write a story about him—his love of falling in love, his belief in the romance of love—for a long time.
Q: Besides Prime Number, what are some of your favorite literary magazines?
A: I have a subscription to The Kenyon Review that I can’t live without!
Q: What would your ideal writing day be?
A: I write every day, in the early morning, before I go to work. I have grown to love 5 AM, the growing light, the silence in the house. My ideal writing day would be 5 AM all day long.
Q: What’s happening outside your window right now?
A: Nothing. I’m looking directly at the house across the street, the short driveway that is packed tightly with cars, the gold-colored minivan that has been parked—face forward—in the same spot for three years now.
Q: What are you working on now?
A: I just finished a short story called “Returns,” about a woman who tries to scam people on Craig’s List.