August 21, 2008
In our room that morning as we changed into our bathing suits, stuffing towels and Coppertone into the souvenir Pan Am flight bags our father had gotten for us on a business trip, Glen told me how it would go.
“Answer her questions, but don’t start a conversation.”
“But Dad told us what to say last week. Remember? He said when we meet her to smile and say, ‘I’m state your name, very pleased to meet you, Kate.’ ”
“Yeah, I remember,” said Glen. “You can say it, but you don’t have to mean it.”
“Okay.” I watched him put a book into the bag and then slip a small white bottle of roll-on deodorant in after it. “Why are you taking that to the beach?”
“Don’t want my pits to stink.”
“You think girls from school will be there?”
Glen’s face went red as he zipped up the bag, then mumbled, “You never know.”
“I think she’ll be tall,” I said. “Taller than Mom, probably.”
“If you’re nice to her I’ll punch you,” Glen said, tucking the towel under his arm. “Hard.”
I was right — Kate was tall and very tan. She hid her eyes behind dark sunglasses but had the easiest, kindest smile I’d ever seen, as if she were utterly carefree. In the car she sat turned around in her seat looking at us over her smooth, brown shoulder, and after a moment slipped her glasses down and peered at us over the white plastic frames.
“You men ready to catch some waves?” She was younger than our mother by only a few years. Her long dark hair showed faint streaks of gray at the temples and was pulled back into a pony tail, not cut short like our mother’s.
“There aren’t any waves to catch,” Glen said. “This is the Gulf of Mexico, not Hawaii. Besides, we don’t even own surfboards.” He practically spit the words at her.
“Well, Glen, this morning the radio said there was quite a storm brewing out there. We likely won’t see any rain today, but there should be enough wave action to do some of body surfing.”
“What’s body surfing?” I asked.
Glen glared at me, then turned and looked out the window.
“You’ve never body surfed?” said Kate.
I glanced at Glen’s broken reflection in the window, then shook my head.
Kate flashed a bright smile and laughed. “Oh, it’s so much fun. I’ll teach you — both of you. We might even get your father out there.”
“Hey now,” our father said raising a hand off the wheel. “Someone has to tend the grill and keep the seagulls from stealing the meat.”
“Don’t you worry, men, we’ll get him out there.” She reached over and patted our father on the cheek. “Hey, you guys don’t really like this music, do you?” she said to us. “Charles, enough with the Boots Randolph — put on some rock music for these young men!”
At that, I was enchanted.
The two of them smoked, drank a few beers, and grilled burgers while Glen and I built a sand castle, then grabbed our swords and headed to the fort.
We were playing in an old ammunitions room that we pretended was a jail cell, locking up some Indians we’d captured, when Glen grabbed me and pinned me against the iron bars with his wooden sword.
“Hey Pablo,” he said with an exaggerated Spanish accent, “I think you are secretly on the side of the Indians, eh? By the light of the moon I spied you talking friendly with the prisoners last night. I think you are no longer interested in conquering them — you are befriending them, no? You pity them, maybe?”
“That is not true, Señor Capitan! I am all for mother Spain.” Someone always turned traitor, and always denied it, during Conquistador. “They are but savages –”
Glen jabbed the sword edge harder against my neck. “Hey, that hurts!” My fake Spanish accent was gone. “Cut it out!”
“You have been accused of consorting with the enemy, Pablo. How do you plead?”
“Knock it off. I’m not playing this stupid game any more.”
“Have it your way. It’s your funeral, for you are sentenced to death, my little two-faced one. At the stroke of high noon it will be adios for you.”
“You’re choking me. Get off, I mean it!”
Glen pulled the sword back, resting it lightly against my skin.
“Fine, JimBO,” he said, mocking Dad’s nickname for me. “Don’t start liking her.”
He backed off and whipped the sword away, a nub on the edge of the wood catching my neck, breaking the skin enough to draw tiny beads of blood.
The salty sweat on my neck made it feel worse than it actually was. I gritted my teeth and turned away, looking out through the rusty bars of the one window in the room and pretended to be fascinated by a pair of seagulls fighting over a paper bag full of food scraps next to a green metal trash can at the edge of the parking lot.
I touched my neck and pulled my hand away, disappointed there was no bright slash of blood on my palm, only a few tiny dots.
“You’re not crying, are you?” Glen said from the doorway behind me. “You gonna run and tell Dad?”
“That hurt like fucking hell, you know!” I heard Glen snort, but I knew he wouldn’t say anything about the cursing because of my neck. I felt grown up and tough saying the words, but I thought a bunch of blood would have been better.
“Do you hate her or something?” I asked.
Glen tapped the stone wall with his sword. “I don’t hate her. It’s just . . . I don’t know, it’s all wrong. I don’t think we should make it easy on them.”
“Do you hate Dad?”
“No, stupid! Don’t you want him to get back with Mom some day?”
I didn’t know what to think. To me, in the year they’d been apart, my mother and father seemed happier than they’d been in a long time. Besides, Dad still came to visit and we were allowed to go see him at his apartment — no more bourbon-fueled arguments at night. I couldn’t tell if they were putting on an act specifically for me and Glen, but they both seemed somehow relieved, calm, well behaved. Maybe things were best left as they were, I thought, at least for now; I only wanted everyone to be happy. If my parents were meant to be together again, it would happen. I wouldn’t force it. I was powerless anyway.
With Conquistador ended for the day, we went back to the picnic table at the edge of the dunes, away from the water, in the shade of two young palm trees. The pitiful bleeding had stopped, but my neck still burned.
Dad knelt before the tiny grill, his back to us as we came up. Kate, sitting at the table surrounded by condiments, buns, and plastic containers of potato salad and cole slaw, noticed my neck immediately and asked me what had happened.
“We were playing, and . . . ” I eyed Glen across the table. He was digging through his bag for the library book about shipwrecks.
“Well, it was during Conquistador when . . . .” I dragged it out trying to make Glen squirm, but he simply opened the book and began flipping through the pages, picking up where he’d left off the night before at a section about magnetometry and dendrochronology that he’d tried to explain to me without success. Glen wanted to be an underwater archaeologist or a filmmaker, and I thought he was probably the smartest kid his age, though not everyone knew it. Glen read constantly, and I knew he was smart, even though Dad sometimes called him anti-social.
“I tripped on a big rock,” I continued, “and my neck got scraped by a palm tree branch or something. It doesn’t hurt.” It sounded lame even to me, but Kate didn’t even blink.
“You’d better let me put something on that.” She reached into her beach bag and brought out a tiny red and white plastic box. “I have just the thing.”
“Don’t worry, pal,” Dad said, “Kate’s an excellent nurse. Very gentle and professional. She hardly lost any patients last week.”
I knew by his voice that he was joking. This I loved about my father: his lightning-quick sense of humor and ability to create the most hilarious stories and characters out of thin air. He once made up a story about Phil Filament, a little man who lived inside the lightbulb in my room, and how he had gotten sick one day from drinking too much electricity and thrown up on the wires inside the bulb and burned it out. I also admired how my father could take control of any situation and was an authority on just about every subject. (As I grew older, however, my perception of these last two traits would change, and admirable would be a less fitting description.)
“You really are a nurse,” I said, smiling up at her.
“That I am. I work in a hospital and everything. Come sit over by me while I do this.”
She opened a foil packet of ointment and squeezed some onto a cotton ball, the medicinal scent drifting like an intoxicant around me as she gently dabbed at my neck, lightly brushing my chin with her fingertips as she worked. I was at turns relaxed and anxious — I could have fallen asleep right there with the rhythmic sound of the waves rolling in, the warm breeze rustling the palm fronds, the cool ointment on my neck, Kate’s gentle touch.
I began to wonder what my mother was doing at that moment on the other side of town. Was she eating lunch alone or with a friend? She hadn’t many. Sewing a new dress? Smoking and listening to her old Ella Fitzgerald records and missing us? I tried to imagine her outside at the little shops she liked down by the bay, strolling along in her white sandals and last year’s summer dress with the tiny purple flowers on it, an offshore breeze mussing her hair as she window-shopped, eyeing new dresses behind her Ray Bans.
More likely, I thought, she was doing housework and figuring out the bills like she usually did. I felt guilty about enjoying myself, even though she never said anything negative about our father and his new life. Still, I wondered if she was happy. My mother’s feelings were often difficult to judge.
“You look like a tough character,” Kate said, “so we won’t put a band-aid on it. Wouldn’t want to give you a funny band-aid tan line on your neck, now would we?”
* * *
Kate would marry my father the following year. They would divorce eight years later with no children of their own. He was still stuck with us.
Kate would continue to keep in touch with me through letters which she sent quarterly, and which I kept in a cigar box. (My mother said the letters were sweet and a good reflection on me. If they ever bothered her, she never said so.)
I met Kate on two occasions for lunch just before I left for college. We would communicate sporadically over the next 10 or 12 years, tailing off to just once or twice a year, birthdays and Christmas, both of us moving in different directions.
Two years ago I received a birthday card, no return address and a Santa Cruz postmark. In the accompanying letter, she said she’d moved to California and was living with her sister, apologized for not keeping in touch and for including the sad news that she had cancer. The outlook was grim. My father — at her request — was unaware of this. It was her way of getting back at him. The selfish bastard.
Regardless, I never understood why she didn’t tell him, but I secretly relished the idea that I was privy to important information from which he was excluded. As I time wore on, however, I no longer relished this. Her decision seemed inexcusable, cruel, and petty. I don’t want to know what he must have done. He was a mess then, everyone was. He’s sober now, and maybe he doesn’t even remember much. Perhaps that’s best. I know I couldn’t live with myself for having driven away a woman like Kate. Yes, she left him, just as he left my mother.
Kate closed her letter by apologizing again for the depressing news on my birthday, told me not to worry about her, and said she had always wished I were her own. And she made me promise to keep writing stories. She loved them.
Her sister called me last month when Kate died. I thanked her, said something incoherent through sudden tears flowing down my cheek onto the receiver.
By then I no longer had photos of Kate, the one handful lost in various moves about the country. The cigar box is gone too, but I hung onto her last letter.
She knew my father better than anyone. I could see it in her eyes when we talked after the divorce before I left for school. Glen grew out of his anger, but he never really connected with Kate. As for me, I just wanted to love everyone and make them love everyone else and be happy together. I’m such a sap. Always have been.
I think Kate sensed this about me, saw me as a perpetual ten-year-old stuck in the middle of this adult mess, smiling bravely and hoping for the best for all of us. She encouraged my writing and looked forward to every story or poem I sent to her, praising each one in its turn, no matter how awkward or immature. She quietly and without fanfare loved me unconditionally. Like a parent.
* * *
“What happened to Granddad’s friend?” Emma asks.
“The Indian?” Darla says, raising her eyebrows.
“She wasn’t an Indian. I think she was Scots-Irish, but, well . . . that’s not important. It didn’t work out and she moved away.” That’s the best you can do? I ask myself.
“I’ll bet he was sad,” says Darla.
I sigh. Great bedtime story. Tomorrow night it will be something happy, like the time Glen and I made our own funhouse in the garage, whipping eachother around in the dark with a stolen shopping cart. Then again, that episode ended with a small electrical fire and a broken arm for me. Another cautionary tale.
“Granddad made new friends,” I say at last. “He’s very good at that. He’s a happy old man now. Having friends and people who love you is all that matters. Now go to sleep. I love you both.”
They drift off quickly. I pad down the hallway and slide under the covers to tell my wife we need to see my parents. Soon. For better or worse, Florida beckons.