Unsuitable

By Molly Power


The day after Halloween, I got off the school bus and walked into our house like it was any other day, but I was so wrong. My parents were sitting at our kitchen table across from each other, looking weird and solemn. They weren’t talking, just sitting like zombies.

“What is it?!” I said, staring at them. “How come you’re not at work, Dad?”

He motioned with his hand for me to sit. “We need to tell you something,”

My mother’s chin trembled like she was going to cry.

What came out, finally, was that my parents were separating. They said they had drifted apart—they no longer wanted the same things in life. They said it would be really hard on me, they knew that, and for that they were sorry. Heartily sorry my dad said, twice.

I felt like they had punched me right in the stomach, but also like what they were saying couldn’t be real. I didn’t even realize that Dad was clinging to my hand when he talked and squeezing it. Then Mom jumped up and began to hug me from behind while she started to cry. Of course I cried but it didn’t matter—my father was still leaving, moving into an apartment in town. He said his stuff was already there. I pushed back my chair, struggled out of my mom’s arms, and ran upstairs to my room, yelling at both of them. I don’t remember what I said; something mean.

After that, for two weeks, I daydreamed about what I could do, or say, to get them back together. Tragic accident? Terrible sickness? I didn’t think that was enough. Sure, they would both pay a lot of attention to me while I got better, but my dad would still be living in a different place. I’d have to really, really cause a shock.

What if I died—I was certain they would get back together. That fact was so frustrating. My mother would call my father, sobbing, almost unable to be understood, and he would drive his car to our house—we only live five miles from town so he’d be back in twelve minutes.

I could see it so perfectly: They would sit for a while in our living room or out on the sun porch. I think on the sun porch, Mom on the wicker love seat, her feet tucked up under her, and Dad in the chair opposite, leaning forward to be close to her. They’d be saying the same phrases to each other; things like, “I mean, she was only thirteen, her whole life before her,” and “I’d give anything to have her back, anything.” “I know, I know.” And all the time they would think: If we’d known this would happen we would never have separated.

They’d go to the funeral parlor together in my father’s car—when they go places together they use his car and he drives. She navigates, that’s what he calls it, although he second guesses her all the time. They’d have to pick out a coffin. A small white one. I saw that on television once. It was a really small coffin for a girl who was kidnapped or something. Mine would have to be a lot bigger.

Later, at the funeral, they’d sit together in the church, up front, holding hands, giving each other strength, and then they would stand side by side over the rectangular hole at the cemetery, while the coffin, covered with pink lilies, was lowered into the ground. The minister would say prayers. Not the old minister, Reverend Allen, who has bad breath and wears orthopedic shoes, but the new one, Rev Mike. My friend, Sally Jenkins, thinks he looks like Jude Law, only with red hair and freckles. He works out, we know that much; Sally’s mother sees him at the gym.

When the funeral was over, they’d have a few people back to the house; the house we all lived in forever until two weeks ago. The house I grew up in—where Dad has a workshop in the old equipment shed and Mom used to make us great dinners, like Chicken Diane or Lasagna. I bet my great uncle Otis, who lives on a farm outside of Baltimore, would come. (He was planning to give me one of his prize beagle puppies, but I don’t know if he will now, knowing my father has gone to live in an apartment in town. He’s my father’s uncle, not my mother’s, so maybe that deal is off. I had a name picked out, too—T-Bone).

            *     *      *
The sad truth is there wasn’t one thing I could really do to bring my dad back. A week after he left, he called me and I thought maybe he was going to say he was coming back, but that isn’t why he called.

“Hi Cassie, it’s Dad.” He said this in his best imitation of a cheerful voice. That tone only lasted for one sentence and after that he just sounded nervous.

“I know it’s you, Dad.” I refused to be cheerful back because I didn’t fake stuff. Why would I be cheerful?

“Well, I was wondering if you’d like to come and see me. And my apartment.”

I admit I didn’t know what I wanted to say back, so I didn’t say anything. I wanted to see him, I missed him so much, but I was thinking if I went to his apartment it would make it seem like it was okay for him to be there, like I was accepting it, which I was not..

He sighed into the phone. “Hey. I sure would like to see you. We could have dinner together.”

“I have to go. Homework.” I didn’t care if I was pitiless.

The next Sunday he called again and it was almost the same non-conversation. After I talked, I heard my mother tell him I got a B-plus on a history paper—it was about Lewis and Clark. When she got off the phone she told me I would have to go see him sometime, sometime soon.

“He loves you very much, you know,” she said.

“He’s got a funny way of showing it, huh?” That was all I said, but I knew she was right, and a part of me wanted to see him so much I ached.
    *     *      *

After three weeks I relented and my mom dropped me off in front of my dad’s apartment. I was shocked. It’s on the second floor over an insurance office downtown. The stairs going up to it had dirty black rubber pads glued to each step. His door, 202, was coated with varnish that looked like glops of honey.

“Hey, here she is!” He said in a hearty voice, throwing the door wide. He stretched out his arms in a way that embarrassed me so much I stepped back. Then he looked so disheartened I tried to give him a smile. “Hey Buddy,” he almost whispered. He used to call me Buddy when he and I did things together, like in his workshop.

I didn’t answer, because I thought it was mean of him to remind me of Buddy. I stepped inside and didn’t even want to look around. Everything in that room—what he told me was his living room—was brown. The wall paper (old, ballooning out from the wall in places, ripped in the corners, and stained) was brown; the floor—brown and scuffed; the little coffee table and chair with a sagging upholstered seat and back—brown. There was an old TV on a metal stand across from the shapeless couch—all of that was brown. The stuff in his apartment looked like it was dragged in off the street. I’m only thirteen and even I knew this was pathetic.

“Honey, it’s not much, I know, but it was available on short notice.” He led me down a narrow hall past a tiny kitchen. A gold refrigerator beside a battered metal sink and a really small, filthy stove. No window. A door on the one wall cabinet didn’t close and the paint was chipped off. He moved on, flicking the light on in the bathroom behind the kitchen—I glanced in at the pink tiles and stained tub and kept moving. I barely looked in the doorway of his bedroom at boxes and clothes and piles of books and a quilt that I recognized. A double bed, but no bedside table, even. A metal lamp—the kind kids have on a desk on top of a cardboard box. Unsuitable.

He was looking at me with his eyebrows raised, as though he expected me to make a comment about what I had seen. “Oh, well, this apartment sure is—” I wanted to say pathetic—“small.”
We turned around at the bedroom doorway and walked back up the hall. It was so narrow I had to walk behind him. I kept thinking about that quilt and how it shouldn’t be here.

“Oh, I don’t mind if it’s small. I don’t need a lot of room, really.” Every time he said something he smiled in a stupid, fake sort of way.

I could see there sure wasn’t any room for me. “What do you eat?” I didn’t think he knew how to cook. And if he did, he wouldn’t have picked an apartment with such an unsuitable kitchen.

“The usual. Meat, fish, rice, salad. Like that.” He shrugged, as though it didn’t matter.

“What are we having tonight?” I was staying for dinner. My mother said I had to.

There was the fake smile again. “Trout. You like trout, right?”

“Trout? I don’t think so.” I liked flounder. And shrimp. That was it.

“It’s very mild. I bet you’ll like it.” He stopped smiling. I knew I could help him out, tell him I was going to love the trout, but I couldn’t.

“Nah.”

“Well, you can drown it in catsup or tartar sauce. I bought you some tartar sauce.”

We had returned to the depressing, brown living room. He sat down in the one chair and gestured with his arm in the direction of the sofa, which was too close to his chair. I sat on the very edge of the lumpy sofa and put my hands on my knees. I looked across to the uneven mini-blinds that were missing blades. This was too weird. I didn’t think I’d come to his apartment again. It wasn’t normal for us to sit like this. I liked being outside, or sometimes, quiet and reading. He liked to be at his office or in his garden or in his workshop. We never sat just talking like this.

“One reason I thought you’d like this location is that you can go downtown—it’s just two blocks down—and get an ice cream cone, or go to one of the stores. You’re not dependent on anyone driving you.”

God, when he said that I thought; I’m only thirteen. I don’t mind people driving me places. I was counting on my fingers, quickly, so my Dad wouldn’t notice. I’d probably get my license when I turned seventeen. Four years away. This struck me because I don’t like kids that are seventeen; they seem conceited and kind of loud. I took my hands away from my knees and put them under my thighs. I looked at the hole in his sock on his right foot. I looked at the frayed hem of his jeans. There was a drip of something green on his shirt and that would have driven Mom crazy.

“Are you growing a beard?”

“Yeah. What do you think?” He turned away to show me his profile.

I shrugged. “I liked you better before.”

Neither of us said anything and I was kind of sorry I said that. I glanced over and thought he looked hurt, or maybe defeated. I listened to the traffic out on the street. He rubbed his little beard with a finger. At least the stupid smile was gone.

I said, “I’ll help you cook, then.”

“No hurry, it’s only five-thirty.” He leaned back into the chair as though he was relaxed, but I knew he wasn’t.
He jiggled his left leg, like he did when he was nervous. “So, how’s school?”

“Our homeroom teacher might be having a nervous breakdown.”

“Oh Cassie, come on. Why do you say that?”

“She cried in class the other day. She had to leave the room.” I busied myself with taking lint off a brown pillow and smoothing the pillow on my lap. It had almost no stuffing in it.

“That’s too bad. I bet something happened in her life, something sad.”

“Mom cries.”

My dad rubbed his beard with all the fingers of his right hand. He closed his eyes for a moment. “This is hard on all of us, isn’t it?”

“But worth it, huh? I mean, look around.” My face and neck flamed. If he started to yell at me for being fresh, I would take it back.

He mumbled, “Oh Buddy. This is just temporary.” Then he sighed and stood up. “Let’s fix dinner.”

Two of us couldn’t fit into the kitchen, so I stood on the other side of a pass-through, in the hall. I was about to remark that there wasn’t a place to eat—no table and chairs—but I didn’t. He got down on his knees and opened a little door at the very bottom of the stove and peered in with his ear right down on the old scuffed linoleum. There was the trout lying on a cookie sheet with a pat of butter on the top of each piece.

“I was thinking of broiling them,” he said. He lit a match and reached into the bottom of the stove and the oven went on with a bang.

Now the apartment smelled like gas. I tried to breathe through my mouth. He hummed a little bit when he put our fish on plates, as though we were having a nice, normal dinner, and then took a plastic container of potato salad out of the refrigerator and a bag of lettuce. And bottled dressing—Ken’s. I bet Ken’s is probably full of bad stuff—chemicals. Mom makes her own dressing.

We took our plates into the living room and sat hunched over the coffee table, eating. I said, “I never eat potato salad.” I said that because I didn’t want him to think I was criticizing his choice for dinner. After I said it, though, I thought I sounded too blunt, so I said, “Fish is good, though.”

“Oh damn, I forgot your tarter sauce. Want some?”

“No thank you.” I pushed the salad around the plate because I didn’t eat salad either, not when there were brown places on the lettuce.

I was noticing the fish skin, the way it pleated and folded and moved when I poked at it with my fork. I wondered if anyone ever made stuff out of it, like animal skin. I was thinking of a dress made of it and how great that might look. Very slinky and slithery. I thought of Marilyn Monroe. I loved her in Some Like It Hot. Last year, over Christmas vacation, we three watched it together and we all thought it was hysterical. Dad made his famous maple popcorn.

He picked up both our plates and put them on the pass-through. “It’s still early,” he said, looking at his watch as though it had to be wrong. We sat in the living room again. His leg was jiggling again.

“I have a ton of homework tonight,” I said. I didn’t think I could stand staying there much longer. The plan was that I would meet Mom at the library at eight. Now it was only six-fifteen.

Someone was coming out of the other apartment. First there was the sound of a door being yanked open and then feet shuffling. “Honest to Pete,” the person muttered. A woman’s voice.

“Who is that?” I whispered.

“I don’t know her name,” he whispered back. “We met on the stairs yesterday.”

We heard her footsteps going down the stairs, and then the outside door slammed.

“She’s kind of loud,” I said. I got up and looked out the window. She stopped at the curb and lit a cigarette. Then she took out her cell phone. “Hey, she’s young.”

“Yeah, she does look young.”

I stayed standing next to the window although the woman was gone. My dad said he’d clean up the dishes. I couldn’t get over this neighbor woman; it didn’t occur to me that he would be living so close to another person; a stranger. It was like living in the same house with someone, but someone you didn’t even know. Creepy. It made me very uncomfortable. I walked to the pass-through and talked to my dad while he washed the dishes.

“Do you think she’ll ever be a friend?”

He shook his head. “I don’t think so, Cassie. I won’t be staying here for very long.”

“You won’t?” This was interesting. He hated this horrible place, too. Good.

“I’m looking for something—bigger—nicer.”

I picked at the beige paint on the edge of the pass through. It was easy to peel off little patches and then I made a little pile of them. I said, “I know a really nice, big place. And the great thing is that you could have your own workshop. Garden, too.”

He turned from the sink and looked at me. “Oh, Buddy, I’m sorry but that isn’t going to happen.”

“Not sorry enough.” I couldn’t believe what I said. I never used to talk like that to my parents; never ever. And he didn’t tell me not to use that tone or anything like that—all he did was give me a long, sort of pathetic look. I had the idea that I was supposed to know why he looked at me that way. But why?

He wiped his hands on his jeans and came through the doorway. He slowly put his hands on my shoulders and pulled me to him for a long minute, and sighed in my ear. The weight of his mood scared me.

“It’s time for me to go to the library, Dad. Mom’s picking me up there.” I felt like running down the stairs and all the way to the library. I wanted to be outside in the cool air.

“I’ll walk you,” he said, his voice husky. God, he looked downhearted. He started to put his shoes on.

“I’ll just go myself, I guess.” I didn’t want his sadness next to me on the street, walking those three blocks to the library. I couldn’t have stood it. I’d scream. “I kind of want to run, actually.”

“Oh. Okay.” Now, he looked even sadder. I felt bad.

“I need the exercise, that’s all.”

“Sure. Well, next time we’ll go to the movies, maybe.” He hugged me again by the door. Too hard.

I wanted to run down the stairs but he was standing in the doorway, watching me. Instead I walked slowly, wondering if I looked reluctant to go, instead of giddy with relief. At the bottom of the stairs I turned around and waved to him, and then went through the outside door quickly. I breathed in a deep, long breath and started to run as fast as I could, up Market Street, around the corner, up Fair Street, across the street, right to the front steps of the library. I was going to take out a couple of books on Mother Teresa for a report.

I wandered along the bookcases, looking at titles. I picked out three books, and looked inside one of them at the picture of Mother Teresa in the front of the book. She looked tiny, like a bent over child in her white veil with the blue stripes. But steadfast. There was a person who didn’t give up on things. And it wasn’t like what she was doing was easy.

Maybe I’d go to India and help take care of the dying poor. I wondered how my parents would feel about that—me so far from home and maybe getting some of those diseases myself. Not leprosy—I didn’t want to get that, but something else. I thought of myself lying on a narrow cot with a sheet over me, sweating. One of the nuns would be sponging my face off with cool water.

“Look, Cassie, look who is here,” she’d say softly.

My eyes would flutter open and I’d smile a weak smile. There they would be in the doorway of the little clinic, my dad and mom, looking down at me. They’d say, “We’ve come to bring her home.”

I looked out the library door, watching the traffic on the street. There at the curb, with the car motor running, was Mom. I knew just how she would look—tired but brave, her face pale behind the steering wheel. I knew she was listening to NPR, her mind on the war in Iraq or something like that, and I knew her face would brighten when I got closer. She’d turn her head toward me and smile. I ran down the granite steps to the car and jumped in, throwing my book bag and the library books over my seat back.

I started to fiddle with the radio; I always got to choose on the way home. Just seeing her and still thinking about my dad’s apartment, I was so miserable I wasn’t sure I could speak.

My mother pulled out and started to drive down the street, toward the road that would lead us out of town. She let out a big, long sigh. I raised my eyes and watched the familiar neighborhoods on the outskirts of town slide by. We’d be home soon. There were pumpkins at the farm stand and dried cornstalks tied to the corner posts. That’s where Dad and I always get—used to get—cider donuts on Sunday mornings—you had to get there before nine or they’d be all gone.

I leaned my head back and closed my eyes. There was something I had to ask her, but I was scared to. “Are you in love with someone else?” I blurted out.

“Oh Cassie! That’s not how it is at all, honey.” She tried to laugh but it sounded like a sob. We passed the shed and then the driveway dipped down to the house. The porch light was on, as usual. “Did you ask your father that?”

“Of course not.” I couldn’t imagine asking my father such a question.

“Well, did he talk to you some about why he moved out? About what’s happening?”

“No, Mom. What do you mean? Is that why I went over there for dinner?”

She turned the motor off and put the keys in her purse. “I thought he said he was going to talk to you. Explain things,” she said, exasperated. She gave the steering wheel little bumps with her fist. She muttered, “I swear to God.”

“We didn’t talk about anything, really. He’s growing a beard.”

“Huh.” She didn’t sound interested in that.

“So? Come on, Mom. You tell me stuff. Explain things.”

My mother looked at me. “Your father is in love with someone.”

My heart started flipping around in my chest. “What? What are you talking about?”

“Yes, he works with her at the office.” My mom started to pat my leg, to make me feel better but I pushed her hand away. I didn’t want the distraction, not right then.

“Dad’s in love with someone?” I felt like I was trying to catch up, but the words and the meanings of the words were hard to get a hold of. She just nodded.

We continued to sit in silence, neither of us looking at each other, but staring straight ahead. I said, “What’s her name, then.” I slumped toward my mother until we touched. I let her take my hand.

“Elizabeth.” My mother’s voice dropped. “She’s younger than I am.”

Then we both opened the car doors and put our feet down to the ground, and walked one behind the other to the porch. My cat, Herbie, was waiting for me, curled in the green rocker. My mother unlocked the door and pushed it with her shoulder until it opened.

I gave Herbie a scratch around his ears and he followed me through the house and out the back door. I wanted to look at my dad’s workshop. Herbie picked his way daintily from flagstone to flagstone so he wouldn’t have to walk through the wet grass but I didn’t care. I pulled the wooden door open and turned on the light. Herbie sat on stone in front of the door and began to groom himself, uninterested in coming in.

There it all was. I stood inside the door in the bright light, looking at the pegboards and the high counter and the stool spattered with blue paint where he perched, leaning over something he was working on, humming the same refrain over and over. Everything in that room was as it should be; every tool in its place; every nail and screw and nut and bolt nestled in a plastic container with the others; the bottles of glue lined up; even the top was locked down on the green garbage can, where the saw dust went.

I thought: this is what it’s like when someone dies. All his things are still here, waiting, like he might just walk back through the door, turn on the radio and start to work, but he won’t, of course.

Before he moved out I guess I just took my dad for granted. In fact, I always thought I understood him better than I understood my mom and I loved it when people said I was a lot like him, too. Well, that’s a laugh. I’m completely different.

I wouldn’t let someone like this Elizabeth person twist me around and make me leave my family. I can just imagine she probably wears great looking clothes and make up and all that but that shouldn’t have made any difference to him at all. Mom is plenty good looking in her way, too, and she was a true love. Besides, she has a lot of character, not like this Elizabeth who is trivial and hateful.

I crossed my heart and closed my eyes, swearing I would never, ever meet her, and never soften my heart to her.

I stood by the workshop door with my hand on the light switch, turning it on and off, on and off, as though I was keeping some sort of rhythm with my feelings. He loves me, he loves me not. He loves me, he loves me not. Finally I dropped my hand and stood in the dark a moment longer, then stepped out and closed the door behind me.


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MOLLY POWER grew up on a farm in Virginia, busted out when she was barely nineteen, and now lives in Vermont replicating the life she was so anxious to leave years ago. She writes poems and fiction, has had works published in the likes of Oasis, the Caribbean Writer and The Carolina Quarterly. She can be found at mpower@gmavt.net.
  
The Adirondack Review