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Old Haunts

By: Tom Gresham

 

            Roger did not receive a hug or a hello when his daughter answered the door to her apartment. Instead, she groaned and dropped her shoulders like a puppet gone limp. He had shown up without calling first, having learned that giving Amy a heads up also meant giving her a running start, and he was not surprised at her irritation She had managed to avoid him for half of a year since his wife—her mother—discovered the tepid affair he had been carrying on with their neighbor Jeannette Holson, and kicked him out of the house. Amy had been slow to surrender a grudge since she was little.

            She stood for a moment with her fingers curled around the side of the door, and Roger braced for the worst, but then she stumbled backward into the apartment and plunged onto a futon with disheveled sheets in the living room, yanking a blanket to her chin. He followed her inside, shutting the door behind him.

            She looked pale and her stark black hair was cropped shorter than before, reminding him of the period when she was a toddler and her hair had seemed to stop growing for a while. It had worried him.

            “I brought coffee,” he said.

            “Jesus, Roger, I haven’t had coffee in five years,” she said. “I drink tea."

            He stared at her, impressed with her opening salvo. “Roger?” he said. “Are you actually going to play that card?”

            “I’d like to use Roger now, thanks. Would you prefer Mr. Owen instead?”

            He shook his head, smirking, and placed the drinks on a coffee table crowded with used glasses and a pile of magazines. Nobody made him smile more frequently or unwittingly. He missed her sarcastic patter. “So you still can’t get a place with your own room?” he asked.

            She adjusted the pillow beneath her head and looked at him with cold assurance. “I can sleep here fine. Most of my money goes to rent on the studio, anyway, and I can store stuff there. Sleep there even, sometimes. I've got no problem putting the work first and everything else second.”

            Roger was amused by her earnestness, but he suppressed a grin, knowing she’d take it as a mocking one. “How about I make a donation then?” he said, pretending to check out the titles on a bookshelf. “Help you keep that focus.”

             “Forget it,” she said.

             “I know it’d help.”

             “Don’t want your help, don’t need your help. I’ve had some strong sales lately. Robust, even.”

             “Oh, yeah?”

             “Absolutely. Eight pieces sold last week,” she said, patting at her hair, which flared in the back from the pressure of the pillow. She stretched her arms above her head and yawned, showing the practiced nonchalance that always surfaced when they discussed her career. “But this stuff I’m doing now is just to get me going, get me started. It’s not important to me what happens to it.”

             “I don’t believe that. You know the buyers?”

             “Like I said, not important,” she said, sitting up and wrapping her arms around her knees. “So why are you here and how long till you leave?”

            “Thought we could go for a walk.”

            “Why?”

            “Because.”

            “Because why?” she said.

            “Because I want to.”

            He laughed forcefully, hoping to draw something out of her, but she did not crack a smile. He wondered how this was going to work. She’d ignored his phone calls, and he’d been considering just showing up like this for a while, but he knew she’d hate it and he didn’t want some big scene that would make things worse.                       

            “I just want to walk around for an hour, maybe less,” he said. “You know you are living right in the middle of where I grew up? This was my little corner of Richmond when I was a kid. Doesn't that make you curious?”

            She tapped her finger on her chin and looked toward the ceiling, as if she was turning the question over, though clearly she was not. “Not even a little bit.”

            Roger felt as though she was teasing him.

            “Look, if you don't come today I'll keep waking you up earlier and earlier until you say yes. Whaddya say? I’ll buy you a tea. One hour.”

            Amy slouched forward, her head falling toward her toes.

            “Fine,” she said. “The clock starts now.”

 

            They exited a coffee shop, holding their drinks. She had a tea. He had a new coffee. She power-walked as if trying to escape him, and he had to work to keep up.

            “Did you have to be so obnoxious?” she said over her shoulder. “I go in there all the time.”

            “Sorry, that’s just a lot of missing meat,” he said. “Fakin’ Bacon? Soysage? What the hell is that? It’s disorienting.”

            “Nobody thought you were funny, including me.”

            “Oh, forget about it. They know fathers embarrass everybody.”

            He caught up to her and saw the annoyance in her face. Her blue eyes narrowed, a small, fixed grimace sharpening her dimples. They used to laugh together all the time, often using her earnest mother as an unwilling foil. There had been many nights at the dinner table when his wife had complained about some joke she did not get, looking perplexed and impatient, while Roger and Amy descended into hysterics. His connection to Amy in those days had seemed certain and effortless.

            They crossed a busy street and he pried her with questions about her work, her friends. She answered quietly and curtly and he leaned in to hear her over the engines competing with each other in stalled traffic. They walked past a squat classroom building, which emptied art students carrying portfolio cases, and then turned up a residential, one-way street lined with Minis and blue lawn signs and children’s toys scattered on the sidewalk. The sounds of traffic fell away the farther they advanced, and they stopped talking. Every house was maintained and pristine, many with the shiny plaque by the front door that marks a historic home, the year the house was built right there so passersby could measure the past in each contour and feature. Gnarled trees as old as the houses bowed over the street, creating a canopy of fall colors that cast dense shadows on the sidewalk. Amy, wearing jeans and a thin V-necked long-sleeved shirt, clutched her tea tightly to her chest, suddenly seeming cold.

            Roger became transfixed by their surroundings and he started to speak under his breath. “Good God, will you look at that?” “Unbelievable. It’s like a picture.” “Well now, look what they did there. I don't know about that.” He did not engage Amy or explain himself. Eventually, he recognized she wasn’t saying anything in return.

            “This is a magical street right here. No other way to put it. Duley Francis grew up in that house,” he said, motioning to a house with a black wooden porch that shone like onyx. “We used to strip to our underwear on his porch, just leave our clothes hanging all over the railings, and then have these epic water balloon fights in the street.”

            “Like real street urchins.”

            “Exactly. I can’t picture anything like that happening here now.”

            Amy nodded and studied the houses.            “It’s so clean and precious. So neat. I’d be scared to live here and mess something up. They’d probably chase you away with pitchforks.”

            Three little blonde children—two boys and a girl—lay sprawled ahead of them, scribbling inscrutable masterpieces on the sidewalk with colored chalk. An au pair with an Eastern European accent ordered the children to make room and they complied without a word. Roger and Amy took elaborate pains to pass without stepping on the drawings, making a big fuss about how beautiful the works were and how talented the artists must be. The children looked up and thanked them in firm, clean voices.

            Roger leaned toward Amy with a mischievous grin. “You think we should tell them there’s no money in it?”

            She shot him a look of disgust. “I apologize for disappointing you.”

            He lost his smile, frustrated by another parried attempt at fun. “Honey, what are you even talking about? You’re working kinda hard to take offense. You used to laugh more.”

            “Nothing’s funny,” she said.

            When she was young, Amy filled up notebooks, scrap paper, and coloring books with her artwork. She applied herself with an unusual severity, crumbling up and tossing aside pages that she deemed unworthy. She dismissed them, even at the age of five or six, not by calling them “bad” or “dumb” but with a derisive “boring,” the word leaving her lips with the odd Yankee accent she picked up during the five years the family lived in Vermont while Roger worked at his father-in-law’s firm. Roger and his wife told people she would grow up to be an artist the same way parents with kids who liked dinosaurs said they were bound to be archaeologists or kids who reveled in the night sky were sure to be astronauts.

            He looked at her now, severe and wounded, and saw the intense little girl she’d once been. “I remember the first time you ever drew a picture of me that was right on. A really good likeness. You were still little. You got the sharp part of my hair right and the wide set of my eyes and you even had me in this red tie with green stripes that was my favorite. You were so proud of it when you handed it to me. I couldn’t say anything I was so stunned. I had no idea you could see me that clearly.”

            “You still got that drawing?”

            Roger grimaced. “I don’t think so.”

            She smiled. “Do you understand the difference here between your words and your actions, Roger? It’s hard to buy what you’re selling sometimes.”

            He nodded. “That’s fair.”

            They walked in near-silence, interrupted occasionally by Roger pointing out houses of old peers. They passed a playground, a Cuban restaurant emitting the enticing smells of braising pork and spices, and house after attractive house preserved like museum pieces, with fluted columns and immaculate ironwork and lovingly restored front doors. At an intersection, he looked north toward the statue of Robert E. Lee, visible on Monument Avenue. Three men circled the statue with cameras, snapping photos like hungry paparazzi. A block later Roger and Amy stopped in front of a yellow brick house that overlooked a small triangular park across the street. A statue of a revolutionary war-era soldier stood perched at the top of the park, surveying the neighborhood, a musket in his hands. A couple sat on a bench in the shade, the man’s arm resting over her shoulders. For a moment, Roger hesitated, overwhelmed by the onrush of his childhood.

            “So this was my home growing up,” he said, sweeping an arm toward the yellow house.

            “I know,” she said.

            “You do?”

            “Of course. You used to show me this when I was a kid. Remember? You’d drive me all around and tell me where you played baseball and bought your comic books and sodas and played grab-ass with your friends.”

            “You remember that?”

            “Well, you taking the time to do that stands out, I guess. Let’s be honest, Roger, there’s not much of that sort of thing to catalogue.”

            Roger’s face reddened. “You keep saying things like that and it’s ridiculous. You’re remembering things wrong. I was a good father. I did stuff with you all the time. Is this another way of punishing me?”           

            “For what?” she said, the hint of a smile on her lips. “By the way, you ever talk to Mom?”

            He nearly smiled at the dig. “Nope,” he said, knowing she knew the answer. “Caller ID’s a killer.”

            “Ah, she keeps the drawbridge up, heh?”

            “I leave messages for her, but never hear back. It’s gotten kind of goofy. I just start talking now, reciting lists, reading articles from magazines. Maybe she’ll answer one day to make it stop.”

            “I doubt it. She probably doesn’t listen past the first sound of your voice, and pissing her off has got to be the absolute worst way of trying to get her to talk to you again. She’s stubborn.”

            “Completely obstinate,” he said, lighting up. “Nobody digs in her heels better.”

            “So you’re back to loving her again?”

            “Oh, I never stopped.”

            She crossed her arms and fixed him with a look of obvious disapproval. “Then why’d you do it? Why’d you do the stupid thing you did?”

            The feeling of shame and guilt that had become a constant undercurrent to his life returned to the surface, and he exhaled as it filled his chest yet again. “I don’t know. Honestly. I have no idea. For what it’s worth, I don’t think Jeannette does either. Would boredom make sense?”

            “Not to me.”

            “My behavior just wasn’t up to my heart, I guess. Men, am I right?”

            Her jaw set, and he knew she was going to be tough on him. When she was little, she fixed her face the same way when she tried to boss him around. The charm of that angry face and its faithful imitation of her mother never grew old for him, and he could not subdue a grin now, though he knew it would make things worse for him.

            “You act like your behavior is out of your hands, like it’s not even up to you. Probably you think it's charming. Maybe it was for Mrs. Holson, but it’s not for the rest of us. Not in any fucking way.”

            Roger felt every bit of the blow just as she had intended it. He could not believe just how far he had fallen in her eyes. When she was little—crawling at his feet, telling him rambling stories about her stuffed animals, doggie paddling as she realized with wide-eyed astonishment that she could swim by herself—he never imagined such words from her. Such heartfelt disdain from his beaming little girl.

            They headed back in the direction of Amy’s building. Lean, full trees were spaced along the narrow sidewalk every ten yards or so, and Amy walked a line that forced Roger to step awkwardly around the trees’ borders every time they reached a new one. He was amused at the trick and searched her face for some sign that she was enjoying the hard time she was giving him, but he could not find any bit of pleasure there. Somehow, being with Amy was proving to be worse than being without her. Her new coldness and impenetrability were threatening to harm his memories of her, leaving him with nothing at all to hold onto. He could not find her.

            Near the Cuban place, he motioned across the street. “That house over there reminds me of the one we rented in Burlington. Something about the way the windows don‘t line up quite right. You remember it?”

            “Nope.”

            “That’s too bad.”

            They continued walking. Her pace was quick, almost urgent. He could see they would be coming to the end soon. He was running out of time. He kept thinking about Burlington.

            “When we were in Vermont, I used to take you to Lake Champlain almost every day in the summer,” he said. “I used to come home from work and you’d be waiting right inside the front door in your bathing suit and little pink sun hat. You’d be holding a bucket and shovel, dying to get to the beach. What, you were four, maybe five, then? You in all seriousness could not have been cuter.”

            “Oh, please,” she said, looking across the street, away from him.

            “Trust me. It’s true. You’d dig in the sand and spill it all over the place, make a mess of yourself, get it in your hair and everywhere. Then we’d go out in the water and I’d toss you up in the air and catch you over and over, and you’d giggle and laugh and when I’d stop, you’d squeal, ‘Again, again, again,’ until I tossed you up some more.” He threw up his hands in a show of frustration. “I can’t help it. I think about that all the time. Every day something reminds me of it.”

            She smiled reluctantly and shook her head. “Sounds nice,” she said. “Too nice. I had to get whiny and bitchy and drive you crazy. I was a little kid.”

            “You don’t remember any of it? Not even a blurry memory of something or other?”

            “No. Nothing.”

            “God, that’s a shame.”

            They reached a playground, cut into a triangle like the park near Roger’s boyhood home. A collection of little kids covered the grounds, crawling up, under, and over everything. Tired mothers slouched on benches and chatted with each other, their eyes never leaving their children. Occasionally, they shouted out orders or admonishments in exasperated voices. Amy and Roger walked along the brick wall that surrounded the playground, listening to the screaming, giddy children. They stopped, leaned on the wall and watched them play.

            “Believe me, I don’t have to clean any of it up,” he said. “It was just like that then.”

            “It’s called nostalgia, Roger. It’s not real.”

            He sighed. “After what I’ve done to you and your mom, I know I should probably just shut up and take my punishment. I get it. I just want you to remember some of the same stuff I do. That’s all. I understand all that time is gone. Long gone. I just don’t want every bit of it to completely disappear for you.”

            She turned toward him, and he saw in her face a new, softer look that he recognized as pity. He looked quickly away. He felt like a child: uncertain, misbehaving, laboring desperately for approval. He had turned into someone different to his daughter—someone smaller—and he knew if he was going to get back in her life it was going to be in a different light. That was now the best he could hope for.

            They stared straight ahead. The kids moved in packs from station to station, dead leaves floating down around them. He fiddled with his watch. She fussed with her hair. He prayed she wouldn’t start walking again.

            “So did you used to plague this park with your presence in the old days, too?” she asked at last.

            He felt a rush of pleasure at the question. He nodded, straightening up and beaming.

            “Yep,” he said. “Except there was a hedge instead of a brick wall. I guess now they've got to keep these little kids from wandering off.” He started to pat the wall with his hands, as if testing its strength. “I tell you if we'd had this wall when we were growing up we would have been doing this all the time.”

            He put his hands on the wall and boosted himself with visible effort atop the wall, surprising her.

            “Oh, no, Dad, don’t—”

            He spread his arms like a tightrope walker and began to shuffle with careful steps, balanced on the wall, clowning a bit, his tongue poking out of the side of his mouth. “Still got it, honey,” he cried. He moved fast, then slow, then fast again. A few of the kids noticed and rushed over, pointing and cheering him on. Amy covered her mouth and laughed. Awkward in his khakis and pressed shirt, he continued to circle the playground on the wall, the children inside following him around, screaming with delight.

 

            They walked back to her apartment.

            “Thanks for giving in and seeing me,” he said at her door.

            “I didn’t have a choice.”

            “True. I won’t bug you again, though.”

            “Yes, you will. Stay here. I’ve got something for you.”

            She disappeared inside and soon returned with a canvas splattered with a wild mix of colors. It was the kind of abstract mess he didn’t understand—didn’t know even how to look at. The rapture these things brought her confused and frustrated him. He wanted to comprehend and relish them the way she did so he could join her wherever she was. She handed the painting to him casually, as though returning a book she’d borrowed. “Bye, Dad. Remember. Leave Mom alone.”

            She closed the door. He stood for a moment in the hall, looking at the painting. He felt crushed. He’d wanted more, a hug maybe or some stronger glimmer of forgiveness. Did the playground count? He held this painting away from his face so his eyes could focus on it. Bewildering really. Crazy tans and bronzes and many shades of blue, green and even white, then something fiery, almost blinding. All of it a strange nuance of colors. This one so much like that one, but not quite the same, all of them toying with each other, perhaps building to something. Was that the sun? Maybe a body of water? A beach? He knew he could never ask her what this painting held. He was supposed to see it.

            Back outside, he opened his car’s trunk. Inside, eight wrapped paintings were stacked on top of each other, each with the same signature in the corner: “A. Owen.” He placed the newest one on top of the others and then slammed the trunk so hard the car shook. He’d nudged closer to her and been rewarded with something she knew he wouldn’t understand. It was almost like a taunt. Art had always been a divide. Once, when she was little, she’d drawn a picture of a little boy reaching up toward a balloon that was just out of his reach, apparently heading toward the sky. “That’s funny, sweetie,” he’d said, laughing. She’d stared at him with tears in her eyes and said, “No, Dad, it’s sad.” He’d never known a rebuke to ever sting so much. He fell into the driver’s seat and felt relief for his well-worked legs. She couldn’t remember anything he wanted her to remember—anything he needed her to remember. He stared at the spread of keys in his hand for a long time.

 

Tom Gresham's work has been published in Day One, Third Wednesday, the Apple Valley Review, Aethlon, Seven Days, Grey Sparrow Journal, and the Timber Creek Review.