“Designated Driver” by Ed Davis

 

“She’s starved, Glenn.”

Kat glared at me.  Though I’d known her only two months—met her at an AA meeting—I was pretty sure that I loved her, or at least liked her well enough to find out if I loved her.  And here we were arguing at the same old cigarette-burnt butcher’s block kitchen table where my ex and I had fought.

“Just because I haven’t paid very close attention since Lois left doesn’t make me a bad dad.  I give my daughter plenty.”

“I didn’t say you don’t do things for Tori.”  Her voice softened when she argued, unlike Lois’s that used to whine like a chain-saw when I contradicted her. “But she’s still starved for love since her mama abandoned her.”

“Died, you mean.”

“Long before that.”

“If I didn’t love the girl, would I have adopted her?  Would I have taken some other guy’s kid to raise?”

She hugged herself, looked away, as if I’d won.  I didn’t want to win.  I just wanted nobody to lose.

“Okay, I adopted Tori to impress Lois.  Adopting a cute, cuddly one-and-half-year-old was the easiest thing in the world to do.”

“Then the doll-baby grew up.”

Her smile made it bearable.  “So what do you think I should do?”

She blew curly blond hair out of her face like smoke.  “Communicate.”

“Yeh, right.”

She rose, kissed my forehead just like Lois used to before the junk had totally taken her soul, and left.  As her Blazer pulled away from the curb, I really wanted to go to work, too.  Recovery is your job right now, Dwayne, my counselor at the treatment center chanted to us over and over.  And it’s full-time.  Shit.  What I’d give to be up a tree again sawing branches with my Stihl.  But when I stood up and took a step toward the coffeepot, my knee screamed, reminding me that’s exactly what had gotten me into treatment to begin with.  I was lucky, Dwayne said.  It only took you one little fall to hit bottom.

I left St. Christopher’s in plenty of time to beat her home. In group, I’d said “mixed-up” during feelings inventory. When Dwayne pressed me—you were supposed to say at least three—I scanned the list and added paralyzed, and though he raised his eyebrows, he went on to Jake Scanlon who, thank God, had a ton of shit to unload.  He’d never gotten back to me. Good thing.  If I wasn’t careful, I’d let it slip that I was in a serious relationship.  When Tori banged in from school at 3:30, I was ready to begin feeding her after all these years of low-cal love.

“Hi, honey.  Have a good day?” It was exactly the way Lois used to greet me.

“Fabulous.”  She opened the fridge door, leaned inside.  “No milk, no juice, no pop,” she listed.

“Honey, could you sit down.  I’d like to talk to you.”

She slammed the door and looked at me, her eyes narrowed.  “What?”

“Would you please sit down?”

She sat, arms clutching her thin chest.  I saw her through Kat’s eyes:  backwards baseball cap, dirty tee-shirt, baggy-ass jeans, not a hint of makeup.  She looked like some punk skate-boarder, not female at all, certainly not a fifteen-year-old female.  Did she smoke dope or drink beer?  I didn’t think so.

“What’s up, Pops?”

I had actually liked her calling me that a year or so ago.

“I want to get to know you.”

She clamped her mouth closed, and her eyes got slitty as a snake’s.  “Yeh?  Like how?”

Her haircut was about as butch as you could get.  She’d never had a boyfriend that I knew of. Her life was soccer soccer soccer.  And chess club and fantasy novels.  But none of that told me who she really was.

I spread my hands.  “It’s time we got beyond sharing pizzas in front of the tube.  We need to talk to each other.  You’re my daughter, for God’s sake.”

She lowered her head and her shoulders slumped.  She might as well have sucker- punched me.

“What, you’re not my daughter?”

She studied her shoes:  unlaced big red-and-white basketball Nikes she’d picked up for nearly nothing on sale at Leather for Less.  She never asked me for anything beyond the bare minimum.  She’d babysat everybody’s kids in the whole neighborhood since she was twelve to buy her soccer stuff.  All her clothes came from thrift stores, and chess club didn’t cost a dime. I didn’t exactly keep the larder well-stocked.  Maybe Kat had a point, but starved?

“Then . . . what?  We’ve lived under the same roof for thirteen and a half of your fifteen years, the last two just you and me, since . . . ”  Since your Ma the junkie abandoned you, I didn’t say. Didn’t have to.  Lois was as present as the smell of Tori’s sweat in the room.  “And now, all I’m asking is for you and me to . . .”  To what?  “Listen, champ, I’m sorry to bring all this up.  I only wanted . . .”

But she was gone.  One second she was sitting there; the next she’d evaporated.  And, thanks to Kat, I’d learned I was not my daughter’s father after all.

“So how’d it go?”

We were lying in Kat’s bed, afterward.

“It was good for me.  Was it also good for you?”

She punched my arm hard, and even in the room’s semidarkness, I thought I could make out her scowl.

“She doesn’t consider me her father.”

Silence for several long seconds. Then her soft bed-time voice, a child’s, really.

“Well, she knows she was adopted.  She knows why, too.”

Anger shot through me like a tequila slammer.  For three seconds I saw the blurry red of
barstools and mirrored whiskey bottles and blood as I took somebody down, somebody’d who’d said the wrong thing to Glenn Whittaker.  Breathe, breathe, I could hear Dwayne say.  He knew we career drunks were emotional retards, and he was trying to teach us, step by step, how to feel.  So first thing every day, we chose words from his stupid list to describe how we felt: elated, melancholy, defeated, buoyant.  My favorite was “beautiful sadness.”  We’d crack up when somebody used it.  I sure as hell didn’t know what it meant, and none of those other guys did, either.  Dwayne would just shake his head at us like kids making fart sounds.  Eventually we just abbreviated it:  B.S.

I lit a cigarette, took a long hit, passed it to Kat, even though I knew she was trying to quit.  She inhaled deeply, then let it out for a long time.  “I want you to talk to Ben.”

I sat up on my elbows.  “Didn’t you hear what I just said?”

“It’s not the same with somebody else’s kid.  Plus, you’re a man.  You can tell him certain things and he’ll hear you.”

It was a damn good thing I loved this woman.  I would’ve been so out of there, otherwise.  I saw Dwayne, his mustache twitching, saying for the thousandth time, Come on guys.  Don’t you know anything about feelings?  (Sure we do.  Not to have any.)  Some genius would chant back, “We ain’t saints at Christopher’s.”

Amen, brother.

So after she went to work, I stuck around.  Maybe I could talk to somebody else’s kid better than my own.  I’d read every inch of the newspaper when Ben finally staggered in about eleven.

“Morning,” I said to his back as he stuck his head inside the fridge.

Nothing.  His butt stuck out, his sweatpants sagging to show me red boxers.  Finally he turned around, lifted the orange juice bottle and gulped.  If I smacked his Adam’s apple, he’d never know what hit him.  He collapsed into a chair across from me.

I called Kat at work, though she’d asked me not to.  Nurse’s aide at an old folks’ home
was no piece of cake. I got right to the point.

“I found a condom wrapper in Tori’s room.”

Silence for a second.  I heard someone singing at the top of their lungs.  Did she work at
an old folks’ home or a mental institution?

“Then you’ve got to talk to her.”

“What the hell do I say?”

“Ask her why she thinks she has to become her mother whose hunger for love sent her
to an early grave.”

And who’d starved the mother as well as the child?  This time the anger lodged at the top
of my head, simmered right above my ears.  Change the subject, fast.

“I talked to Ben this morning.”

“How’d that go?”

“Pretty well.”   It was my best customer relations voice.

“I’m so glad.”

There was a good hour and a half before she got off.  Though it was a twenty-minute
drive from my place, I could hit Furniture World, buy a new table and still make it before
she got home.  The simmering had quit.

“Kat, I got to ask you something—you don’t have to answer right away, but . . .”

“Please . . . don’t.”

I flexed my hand.  It throbbed only slightly, actually only warm where flesh had connected
wood.  A few seconds went by.  I imagined her looking around to see if anybody was
listening.

“Glenn, my sponsor says I shouldn’t be seeing anyone, not with me being less than a year
sober.”

The boy must’ve called her as soon as I got out the door. I took a deep breath and let it
out, just like Dwayne taught me.

She took a deep breath.  “Your sponsor is right.”

“Listen, honey, it’s not that I don’t care about your baggage.  But I have my own.”

“Kat, this is gonna sound crazy, but why don’t I call you in six months?”

“All right.  You do that.”

As soon as I hung up, I heard the front door open and close.   When she headed straight
upstairs, the pan of grease in my skull started popping again.

“Come in here, please,” I hollered

The look on her face as she leaned in the doorway said fuck you–twice.  I nodded to the
chair where she’d sat yesterday.  As soon as she perched on the edge, I flicked the
Trojan wrapper across the table.

“Found this in your room.”

Blank screen.  The grease was now smoking.

“Explain, please?”

No denial.  No screaming that I’d invaded her sacred sanctuary.  Nothing but a slight
blush. “His name’s Andrew,” she whispered.

“Go on.”.

“He used to come over once or twice a week.  We played CDs in my room.  We never went anywhere else in the house, never bothered anything of yours.”

I let it go that the rubber was surely one of mine.  “Did you skip school?”

“No.  Never.”  Her clamped-closed mouth made her chin poke out like a pouty child’s—only
Tori had never been pouty, had always seemed to accept everything that came her way.
“He’d come over after school, leave before five.”

Then we’d eat our pizza or pot pies—whatever frozen crap I’d bought—and she’d be so
quiet that I thought that she liked it here, that she was a good girl who went to school,
did her homework and made good enough grades to play soccer.  That she liked, maybe
even admired, her old man who‘d come through for her when her own mother hadn’t,
even though she wasn’t really his.

Not really his.

I heard myself for the first time.  And I knew she’d heard it, too, heard it lots of times.  I
noticed my fingernails were cutting into my palms and unfurled my hand.

“What’s he like?”

She blinked.  “What do you care”

Closing my eyes, I watched a faceless boy enter my house, walk upstairs and lie in the bed
my ex-wife and I used to share.

“Is he passionate?”   Dwayne’s goddamned list.

This time her face blazed. Definitely the wrong question.  “You’re not pregnant, are you? “

“If Trojans work for you, why wouldn’t they work for me?”

I thought of the couple of times Kat had stayed with me, and for the first time felt guilty.
Had Tori heard us?  If she had, wasn’t that better than me and her mom yelling?

“Anyway, we broke up.”  Her stubborn chin again. “The last time he was here, before you
started staying home .”

“I didn’t want to stay home.”

A couple of heartbeats went by.  Finally:

“I followed you to that place . . . St. Christopher’s.”

It stopped me cold.  All this time I’d thought that telling my daughter I’m powerless over
alcohol would be the worse thing in the world for her, she’d known.

“I’m sorry . . . “  I began.

“I know drugs killed Mom.  It wasn’t your fault. You let me stay, Pops.  You’ve been like a
. . . ”—she looked around the room as if the word might be written on the wall—“ . . . like
a great chaperone.”  She giggled.  “Or a designated driver.”

I couldn’t have said a word if Dwayne had held a pistol to my head.  Or look at her.  I
thought of the time I’d punched the wall beside Lois’s head.  My handprint on the wall
wouldn’t let me sleep.  I got up in the middle of the night and painted over it, but I knew
it was still there.  Tori had heard the screaming, then the deep silence when her mother
had finally left.  She’d hardly mentioned her name since the funeral.

When I finally looked up, I saw a young woman fifteen going on forty. I had been dumb
enough to think I could just say I was her father.  Recovery sucked every last illusion back
into the bottle it came out of.  It made my mind spin every bit as bad as the booze had.

“Designated driver?” I sputtered.

“Someone who won’t let you hurt yourself—even though you hate them for stealing the
keys.  I need that more than a father right now.”

She got up, walked around the table and patted me on the head—right where all the
grease was popping up out of the pan.  It’s a wonder it didn’t burn her hand.  In a few
seconds, I heard her feet on the stairs, slow this time.

Sweetie, that is a father.  But I didn’t say it—I didn’t say anything.  I was just thinking
about my next breath.

“How’s it going?”  I asked, smiling, my face feeling painted.

“It’s fucked up, man.”

He cursed plenty in front of his mother, but he’d never cursed at her or I would’ve stepped in. Their deal was that as long as he worked (even if it was running sound for a band) and paid her something, he could live here without going to school “until he decided what he really wanted to do” (her words).  The deal did not include him acting civil.  “He never had a man in his life, not really,” she’d say.  Of course she considered it her fault.

“How is it fucked up, Ben?”  I laid the paper down.

“She doesn’t cook when she’s on days.”

I folded the paper, keeping the folds sharply together.

“Your ma works hard.”

He stuck his index finger in his mouth, chewing on a fingernail, looking retarded.

“How much do you make with the band, Ben?”

“None o’ your business.”

“Whatever it is, it’s not enough to pay your share of the bills.”

“She ain’t told me that.”

“Why do you think she’s taken on home health care patients, too?”

“She loves sick people?”

“She needs to see you trying harder, Ben.”

His face went back to being a blank screen.  Finally he stood up and scratched his crotch.  “Fucking my mother doesn’t give you the right to tell me what to do.”

Heat shot through the top of my head.  One punch to the balls, and he’d be howling on the floor. But Dwayne wouldn’t like it.

“No,” I said, “but it means I’m committed to her.”

“You and every other dick she’s had sniffing around her since . . . forever.”

He turned his head away.  Since Dad hit the road seven years ago, he didn’t say.

“Look, I’m not those dicks.  We wouldn’t be having this conversation if I were.”

When he turned back, his eyes were bright.  “All the others said the same thing.”  He smirked. “Some of ‘em even gave me money.”  He put both palms on the table and leaned toward me.  “How ‘bout it, Glenn.  You pay me, I pay her more, everybody’s happy.”

“I’ve got a better idea.  I ask your mother to marry me, she agrees, we sell this house and she moves in with me—on one condition:  that she comes alone.”

He stood, a bit wobbly.  “You’d do that to screw me, even though you don’t love her.”

“I do love your mother.”

His upper lip curled.  “Prove it.”

I stood up, spread my feet, lowered my center of gravity, distributing my weight.  Closing my eyes for an instant, I saw my hand as a searing sword, then struck the table.  It collapsed in two halves. Ben fell back against the fridge.

“Coulda been you,” I said before leaving by the kitchen door.

I decided to search Tori’s room—maybe it’d give me some clue who she was.  Maybe it was just my way of showing her I was Big Daddy.  Maybe I was desperate.

I’d totally abandoned the upstairs since Lois split a couple of months before she died.  I hadn’t even walked up the stairs more than a couple times.  And my cracked patella from the tree-fall didn’t want to let me do it that day, but I made it somehow, one step at a time (just like Dwayne said).

Her room looked like an inmate’s cell, bed crisply made, carpet so recently vacuumed the tracks were still visible.  No Backstreet Boys.  No women’s Olympic soccer team.  No stuffed animals. No photos. Her room screamed Tori Whittaker doesn’t really live here.  Suddenly I felt a million years old and sat down on the bed.  I resisted the urge to smoke, though I really needed a butt just then.  But she’d smell it and know I’d been here.

I thought of Dwayne and his damned list.  What was I feeling now?  Guilt, of course.  Was that all? Closing my eyes, I tried to coordinate my body with my emotions.  In group, I almost always felt anger or some variation:  irritated, wrathful, sulky, belligerent.  Dwayne once said, “Behind anger, there’s always fear.”  It stuck with me.  Like yellow and green became blue, what did anger mixed with fear become?

I was beginning to boil.  Lois had opted out and left me a single parent with my own load of
problems, like how you make a landscaping business work after getting so drunk you fell out of trees, like how you parent your own kid, much less somebody else’s.

I started to stand up when I saw the music box her mom gave her.  A blue heron flew above some kinda swamp.  I remembered it played a song I hated.  Still, I opened it, and  as “You Are the Wind Beneath My Wing” started, I noticed a balled-up piece of blue paper.  It took me a second to unroll.    Trojans.  Lightly lubricated with spermicide.  One of mine.  Anger rose up like heat from a floor register.  By the time the thing lay unwrapped in my palm, I’d broken a sweat.  I lay back on the bed, closed my eyes and waited to stop shaking.

Fury, blind rage, anger, fear, then jealousy.

Jealousy?

I hated that some guy was getting something from my little girl that I had never gotten.  Not sex. Some jerk’s getting love from her and I’m getting squat; I’m getting you ain’t my dad.  I stood, squeezed the wrapper back into a ball and slam-dunked it into the empty trash can.  But within a second, I was down on my bad knee retrieving it.  I went ahead and said the serenity prayer while I was down there, though God surely doesn’t hear the prayers of the wrathful.   Fake it till you make it, Dwayne said.

 

Ed Davis has previously published his fiction in the Evansville Review, The Vincent Brothers Review, Mudrock, and Wind, among others. Disc-Us Books published his first novel I Was So Much Older Then in 2001, and Plain View Press released The Measure of Everything in December of 2006.

Comments are closed.