I. Visitation Day
The Parent Area was long and narrow and populated with mothers who sat elbow to elbow in mismatched chairs. The mothers discussed leotards and gorilla gyms. They judged one another with passive smiles and overdone compliments. The chairs were clustered around a window in a partition wall that separated them from a studio space. In the window, a snowdrift of indistinguishable white children kipped and piked and saltoed into view.
Eddie sat with his chair turned away from them, his face in a book whose title might as well have been Fuck Off, Ladies. The room recalled, for him, the makeshift set-up of a church basement on the night of a substance abuse meeting, but without the good stories.
“That’s awesome,” two mothers said in near-unison to a third’s revelation of a new doggy daycare that had broken ground in her neighborhood. Their voices stepped in front of the passage Eddie was reading and deflected its meaning from his brain.
Some Saturdays, he couldn’t concentrate at all, this ninety-minute wait pushing his mind to fantasize about that small swatch of studio space he could see through the interior window glass. Its landscape of mats and pads and projecting balance beams becoming an alien forest on some cushiony planet inhabited by regimented, somersaulting children. When viewed in long duration from the Parent Area, the studio could seem cozy, like a womb specially planned to gestate society’s affluent physically fit, and Eddie sometimes longed to break into it, away from the mothers, to curl, fetal, on its foam floor, its nurturing climate his last chance at a fresh start.
A girl with a raised finger marched out of the studio now, yelling directionless to her unseen mother, something urgently concerning a boogie. Eddie slapped his book shut, tried politely to look away from the mother as she wiped at the girl’s face and hand with what appeared to be a Target receipt. He prayed silently that this girl might be a sign: the avant-garde gymnast who presaged the return of all those children still leaping and tumbling on the studio mats.
Some minutes later, the outpouring finally came, and so began the chaotic rise and scatter of mothers pairing with children. The tiny gymnasts were let out by an older teenaged coach in high-cut shorts that revealed a tract of muscular thigh. Eddie wished for the sight of this tanned, womanly leg to fill him with regret, a lust that was inappropriate by twenty years, but his eyes passed over her and he had nothing to be ashamed of. Instead, he began his search for the dirty-blonde bunned head of the child who belonged to him.
He found her sitting on the floor, changing her shoes at a network of cubbies. “How’s it going, Worm?” he said.
“How was gymnastics?”
“Good. I’m ready to go now.” Penny rose with youthful ease and started ahead of him. “What’s that book?” she asked skeptically, as if literacy were a skill she had never presumed in her father and that she was not immediately prepared to believe from so passive a sign of it.
“I know him,” Eddie said importantly, pointing to the man on the cover photo. “He was my mentor back when I worked in politics.” He held the door for her.
“You work in logistics.”
“Right, because I failed at politics. This was before, when I hadn’t failed yet. Ask your mother about it. She’ll tell you.”
“It looks old.”
“It is old. They don’t even make it anymore. He was way more successful than I ever was and, still, everyone has forgotten about him by now. What do you think about that?”
Penny shrugged. She walked ahead of him through the parking lot. Eddie reflected that, in this arrangement, she appeared somewhat like a captured prisoner from an opposing army. When they arrived at the car, he attempted to lighten the mood by asking, “Hey, what was the deal with that one kid?”
“Which one?” she said, pulling open the backdoor of the sedan.
“You know, the one with the…face-thing. You have to know the one I mean.” With his hand, Eddie pantomimed a vague snout-shape over his own mouth and nose.
“Who?” she demanded with a screwed expression. “What’s wrong with her face?”
“I couldn’t begin to describe it,” Eddie said. “I’ve never seen anything like it before. Has anyone said what happened to her? Or was she born that way? There has to be a rumor. You can trust me, you know,” he nudged. “The mothers will never get it out of me.” Then, he leaned into the car as if to receive a secret.
Penny’s face darkened, and in her mother’s scolding tone, she said, “Don’t be strange. Who are you talking about?”
Eddie dropped his head. He stared at the blunt edge of a coin that had become lodged between the backseat and the car door. “I don’t know,” he said, defeated. “I didn’t see a kid with a weird face. I just assumed, in all those kids, there probably was one.” He opened the driver’s door and got behind the wheel. “Are you hungry?”
“Are you cooking?”
“Then, yeah, I guess so.” She limited her gaze to her knees and the view through her window.
Eddie backed out slowly, paying careful attention to the children and parents who trickled into the parking lot then bloomed in all directions. As he did, the unwilled image came to him of what it might feel like to roll his rear tires over pedestrians in his blind spot. He heard the perfectly dramatic and unaffected ways Penny might present such an incident to her mother: “You’ll never guess what dad did at gymnastics yesterday…” or, “Guess who ran over Sally K. and put her in a body cast for the rest of third grade…”
“You know,” he said, as he turned the car onto the street, “I was still working with him when you were born.” He raised the book into her sightline from the passenger seat, keeping his own eyes on the road. “Linwood Barth, that’s his name,” he said, waggling the book. “Did I ever tell you about him?”
Penny said nothing.
“He was a campaign manager; I was his advisor. Just local races: Adjutant General in 2007, we won that one; and Commissioner of Agriculture in 2009, another win; and Inspector General—that one we lost three times in a row, although the last time was contested and recounted. Guess how many we lost by.”
“Twenty-six hundred and fifty-three.”
With a tiny, long-fingered hand, Penny enacted an explosion at her temple to indicate her young mind being blown.
“I was positioned to rival this guy running state races until those losses and then, I guess, the well just kind of drying up. I got close, though. I really got close.” He caught his eyes in the rearview mirror and looked away. “Hey,” he called, “when your mother brings you to gymnastics, does she wait like I do? Is she friendly with those other mothers?”
“I don’t know. I’m mostly taking gymnastics, so I’m not sure what mom does. Or you, really. Some weeks, Gail brings me, but I don’t know what she does either.”
Gail was the child abuse attorney for whom Cindy had left him. It was she who had devised the argument against Eddie’s drinking that had led to this reduced, twice-monthly, weekend custody of Penny—drinking which had only resurfaced as a problem when Eddie began to fear that his wife was having an affair with a female child abuse attorney. The three of them—Gail, his daughter, and his ex—now all lived together in Gail’s big Dorchester mansion, an arrangement that he privately referred to as a ‘clit-ocrasy,’ though only when the vodka icepicks had settled in his gut and found themselves capable of laughter and applause.
It had been eighteen months and now, when Eddie saw Penny, they demonstrated exactly what a thirty-eight-year-old man and a nine-year-old girl have in common: precisely nothing. He suspected that it was only through daily interaction or the civil agreement of two people who share a bathroom that a man could manage any true connection with a daughter.
They arrived at a strip of fast food restaurants near Eddie’s house, a neighborhood that had once belonged to her. From a stolen glimpse in the rearview, he judged that the tragedy of this was lost on her. “What are you feeling? Wendy’s or Fry Buddy?”
“Rally’s or McDonald’s?”
“Fish-Head Express or Mutton King? Slop Shack or Stinky Tofu Garden?”
Her reflection was stony. Eddie pulled into the Fry Buddy drive thru.
II. Visitation Night
It was ten-thirty at night. Penny had been in bed for hours. Eddie was drinking icepicks and squinting through old war movies on the classics channel.
Onscreen, Gary Cooper was Alvin York, opining on faith and war, how a man was only a man if his heart was steady and true. This invocation of loyalty prompted Eddie’s reflexive thought that Joan Leslie would never cuckold Gary Cooper. She wouldn’t cheat on Sergeant York. Howard Hawks wouldn’t allow it. Eddie drained his glass, ice cubes striking his teeth, and he wondered, not for the first time, if he was the protagonist of his own life story or just a supporting character who, if he were lucky, would get to make a memorable speech as he bled out on the battlefield, a speech whose only purpose was to bolster the real protagonist for their ultimate win. But, who might that protagonist be? Penny? Cindy? A cynical whisper began to bully his thoughts, a familiar voice reminding him that life was vibrant outside his own walls but that he would be forever unloved and doomed to fail.
Another drink was the answer. He went to the kitchen and put it together, watching the chemical swirl of the vodka and iced tea as he drained half the glass.
He came back to the sofa and turned off the film, stranding the doughboys in their Germanic hell. It was too upsetting, war. Even bloodless, black and white war. Around him, the walls expelled that familiar heavy silence that had moved in with him when his wife and daughter had moved out.
In those early weeks without them, that judgmental silence had pushed so strongly on all sides of him, had seemed so prophetic of a lifetime spent alone, that he’d briefly weighed the option of killing himself. But death was an ugly business of fluids and loosened bowels, and it seemed unnecessarily cruel to force his daughter to dress for her future prom in the bathroom where she found him hanging. Of course, it was unlikely Cindy would have kept the house after his death, and even less likely that Penny would be the one to find him—his body would certainly be discovered by the cat, who, bitch that she was, would be a long way into devouring his corpse before anyone noticed he was missing. Still, he’d found that memories of his absent family somehow made them more alive in the space than when they’d been there to take for granted. He didn’t want his blood to stain the floor where Penny took her first steps or for his bladder to evacuate on the mattress where he last woke up beside his wife. And so, to borrow from a popular conservative bumper sticker, Eddie had chosen life. Such as it was.
He took a drink and thought about Penny. He was a loving drunk, and his eyes welled up at the thought of his daughter hugging him or of her never hugging him again, at his longing to see in her face that when she was with her daddy there was nothing in the world to be afraid of. This was right. Proper. How a parent should feel.
The flush of intoxication broke down the barrier between his thoughts and his words, and he stood up abruptly from the couch and declared: “A parent should love their child!”
For good measure, he saluted. It was a fine punctuation, it seemed to him, for the heaviness of this insight. “No matter what?” he asked himself aloud, as if from the audience of his declaration. “No matter what!” he, as himself, confirmed.
He was down the hall now with only the vaguest awareness of having travelling from the sofa, standing outside Penny’s bedroom door. As quietly as he could manage, he opened it, his glass tinkling against the wood. He stood, swayed, and regarded her sleeping face. It was difficult to admit to himself until he’d consumed a certain quantity of alcohol, but Penny at rest had always reminded him of photos of corpses he’d seen throughout his life: her thin contorted body, her open-mouthed face with the dark-circled eyes that were a trademark of his family line. When she’d lived with him, his deepest fear had been to open her door and find her with her earbud cord wrapped around her neck, the dumb internet video she’d fallen asleep to still playing on her tablet. Actually worse might be to find her missing, her cold body already planted in the woods by the time he checked on her, where it wouldn’t be discovered until some redneck hunter tripped over his shotgun and found himself face to face with her tiny, fleshless skull.
But, tonight, she was there, neck untangled with cords, present and accounted for in the bed that, during their estrangement, he’d more than once passed out in. He stood quietly, his large, cartoon eyes fixed on her throat, until the rhythm of his body calibrated with the stillness of the room, and he was able to perceive the tiny movement of her breathing and was assured that she was okay.
It occurred to him to kiss her on her sleeping check, but he couldn’t shake the thought that the gloss of vodka on his lips would leave a permanent sanitized mark, a bleached, diamond-shaped tag that would mar her face for life. So he closed her door and stumbled down the hall to the kitchen to top himself off.
The refrigerator’s ice maker knocked and rattled but delivered nothing into his glass. When he removed it, however, six half-moons of ice tumbled to the floor. Eddie cursed and got to his knees and retrieved the ice, submitting to the pageantry of blowing off the first few cubes before adding them to his glass, but then adding the rest without examination. It was here, asleep on the floor, that Penny found him nine hours later, his ice melted into his drink, his drink beside him on the tile and filled up to its rim. It was the morning he would think of daily for the next six months when all visitations from Penny were forbidden.
III. Fourth of July
On the first holiday after rehab, three important coins into AA, long after the family frost had begun to melt, Eddie sat in Gail’s big kitchen, a kitchen to which he had never previously been invited and to which he would have previously come. But he now recognized that he’d become a man without friends, so there was nothing for him to do but to take a two-handed grip on his family, such as it was, and not let go.
“It’s good to see you,” Cindy said. “I’m really proud of you, Eddie.”
Gail’s dining table was big and rustic. Penny was seated to Eddie’s right, coloring on the paper tablecloth that he had to grudgingly concede to be a touching effort by the woman who’d stolen his daughter away from him. Gail, herself, was on the back porch, tending to the grill. Half of the women’s six dogs—those who’d found a more appealing source of interest than lapping dripping hamburger fat from the tile beneath the grill—were taking turns filing under the table to nose and occasionally bite at Eddie’s crotch. It was currently the pug who was head-butting him in the balls.
“What are you going to do now?” Cindy said.
Eddie lifted the pug’s chin away from his chair. “Oh—find another freight brokerage, I guess. They’re like roach holes. I’m sure I can skitter my way into one of them.” A fleeting look of jealousy played across Cindy’s face, prompting in Eddie a small wave of satisfaction. “What are you going to do now?” he asked to change the subject.
Cindy’s eyes moved to Penny, whose head was hung low over her coloring. “The best I can,” she said. “That’s all we can do, right?”
“Well,” Eddie said, “that’s the theory I’m testing.”
The storm door slapped loudly, stealing the room’s attention. Gail came toward the table with a metal tray of burgers, the woman seemingly carried by a platoon of enthusiastic miniature dogs. “Hope you’re hungry, sperm donor,” she said, touching Eddie on the back and setting the tray on the table near him.
Gail’s playful sparring had taken him by surprise when he’d arrived, but he figured it was at least a way to avoid the awkward silence he’d expected from this meal, so maybe she was onto something. “You better believe it, home-wrecker. I plan to keep you on your feet serving me the entire time I’m here.”
“Trying to steal my woman?” she said with a good-natured wink.
“No. If that was the plan, I’d keep you around so you could give me tips on how that’s done.”
Gail laughed a big, bellowing laugh, and Eddie did too. Penny looked up and stared from one to the other, then silently queried her mother for direction. Cindy had reddened and fixed her face with a fraudulent smile. Noticing this, Eddie nodded to her and, as if to coach her, offered her that same look, only warm and genuine.
Gail pulled out a chair opposite Penny, taking care not to endanger a stray paw or tail that seemed always to circle her feet.
When she was seated, Eddie said, “Gail, thank you very much for inviting me. It was really thoughtful of you.”
“Edward,” she said, taking his hand and leaning into him with a smile, “have you been into my booze? That sounded awfully earnest.”
It occurred to Eddie that he might have gotten away with an offended reaction to this comment, but he was tired of the politics of the weird turn his family had taken. Still, he hoped Cindy was offended for him, that there might be a fight later, an epic blowout after he left, but for now he only squeezed the hand that held his and said, “No ma’am, I’m just really happy to be here.” And all of them, even Eddie himself, understood that it was true.