by Siobhan Fallon, Army spouse
Val walked into the living room hoping for a hot dinner. She had a newspaper opened to the job listings under her arm, wanting Lucy to see that she’d been productively searching for work. She stopped when she saw Luce hunched at the window, one corner of the curtain lifted.
“What’s up?” Val asked.
Val peered out at a black Buick across the street.
“It’s been there for ten minutes,” Lucy whispered.
“Oh my God, you don’t think it’s…”
“NO! Don’t even say it.”
Lucy stared at her sister, pale and wild-haired, as if that was exactly what she’d been thinking. “No, of course not. There is no way they would just sit in the car like that. Unless they are waiting for official word. Or a chaplain. Oh, damn, I have no idea.”
She looked at Val with hope. “Maybe you owe somebody money?”
“I do not!” Val watched the car. The windows were tinted, the hubcaps new. It exuded all the quite menace of the secret service or Russian gangsters.
“Five more minutes and I call the cops.”
The driver’s door opened. Lucy dropped the curtain.
“What? Who is it?” Val asked, panicking.
Lucy stared, just as confused as before. “It’s Dad.”
They were standing on the stoop by the time he got there. “What’s wrong, Dad? Did you hear something about Jim? About Billy?” Lucy asked.
But their father was grinning. And he was wearing a pink polo shirt.
“Lovely Lucille!” He said, throwing his arms wide. “Vivacious Valerie!”
The girls exchanged glances. “Are you feeling OK?” Val asked.
Lucy crossed her arms suspiciously. “Did I miss the family memo that told everyone to wash up on my doorstep without any kind of warning?”
“What’s the matter with coming to see the loves of my life?” He took them in his arms.
They stared at each other over his pink shoulder. Val could not remember a time when her father, who they referred to as “First Sergeant” as often as they did “Dad,” did anything but forcefully shake her hand. If she’d skinned her knee or scored a winning goal, maybe he’d have given her a brisk kiss on her forehead.
“POPS!” June shouted as she ran onto the porch and hugged her grandfather’s legs.
“I am so happy you are all here,” he said, lifting June in his arms. “I have a surprise.”
“I hope it’s a monkey!” June said as she was carried out to his car.
Lucy looked at Val. “A pink polo? Did he have a stroke and didn’t tell me?”
“Who cares about the pink shirt? Did you see his goatee?”
But the conversation halted when their dad opened the passenger door and a woman stepped out in a short skirt and kitten heels, handing a gift-wrapped box to June.
“Oh my God, let’s hope it’s only a stroke,” Val said.
Their father had never brought a woman to meet them before. All those years and he had seemed content-if anything, he seemed to appreciate bachelorhood. They never talked about their mother. It seemed to Lucy, even at age 7, that her mom had been slowly disappearing long before she was actually gone.
Lucy had vague recollections of glass bottles on the kitchen floor, late-night fights, and her father being the one who took her to school each morning, who mixed Val’s bottle formula and spooned the cereal and peas, who found the babysitter to watch diapered Val all day. Her memories of her mother were ghostly at best, the occasional soft hand across her cheek at bedtime, the smell of something funny in her goodnight kiss.
Their mother left for good soon after Val’s first birthday, for a man who worked in an insurance office in upstate New York. She would visit the girls once or twice a year, a brief trip to the zoo or mall with too many tense smiles and ice cream cones. Then she and the insurance man died in an icy car accident in Albany when Val was in kindergarten.
At first, Lucy thought that her dad didn’t date because he was waiting for her mother to come home to them, the way Lucy herself waited, begging in her prayers every night, asking in her list to Santa even when she was too old to believe that Santa existed. After their mother’s death, Lucy assumed her Dad was happy with his life, his career, his girls.
Whenever Val, in her insolent, teenage way, would ask him if he had a girlfriend, he’d say, “You two are more than enough woman trouble for me.” Or, “The Army is a full time job. You girls are a full time job. I don’t need any more jobs anytime soon.”
It looked like her retired father had found himself a new full time job after all.
“Mommy, look what Miss Rita gave me! A Barbie dressed like a wedding cake!” June waved the bridal doll in the air.
Lucy immediately stared at the woman’s left hand, which, of course, had an engagement ring on it. “Holy shit,” Lucy whispered, and everyone stopped to stare at her, including June.
“Ship, ship, ship, ship,” June sang.
Val looked from her sister to the small redhead attached to her father. The woman was les than five feet tall, barely as high as their dad’s bicep, with sequins glittering from her shirt and too much lipstick. She looked like a fifty-year old child beauty pageant star.
Then Val spotted the diamond on her finger. “Holy ship is right.”
Their dad made a sound in his throat, the sort that once meant the girls were on their way to being grounded. “This is Rita, my special lady friend.”
Rita smiled awkwardly at Val and Lucy’s hostility, then blinked eyelashes that looked like melted tire rubber. “Darling, I need to use the little girls’ room.”
June piped up, “Why does Rita need my room?”
Lucy visibly shook herself. “No, she wants to go potty. Can you show her where the bathroom is?”
The two miniature people had barely walked away when Lucy hissed, “This is crazy, Dad. How long have you known this lady?”
Her father grinned. Yes, there was definitely the beginning of a goatee on the chin Lucy had never, EVER, seen a scrap of stubble on her entire life. “Oh, I don’t know. How long did Valerie know Billy? At least you girls get to meet my intended before we go to the altar.”
Val looked down at her feet, face red.
Lucy continued, “But I don’t understand… this is so fast.”
“Well, I was able to stop worrying about things. You both seemed to be doing well, taking care of each other. Val didn’t need me anymore. (Val’s blush heated up another notch) So I had time to find someone else to look after. And I found love.”
They had leftover ziti and salad for dinner. It was a terrible meal, Lucy and Val watching while Rita did reprehensible things like extravagantly flash her new diamond under the light, wipe a touch of marinara off their father’s chin with her napkin, or take a sip of wine from his wineglass when hers was empty (and Lucy wasn’t offering to fill it up).
Val said she would sleep on the couch and give up the guestroom, but Dad claimed he had already made a hotel reservation, and he and Rita begged exhaustion and left before coffee or dessert. Lucy immediately put June down to bed, a half-hour earlier than usual and minus a bath. In fifteen minutes, she was back in the kitchen with a bottle of Jim’s Johnny Walker Red.
She slapped two shot glasses down in front of Val.
“I think Dad pinched the midget’s butt when they were walking out the door,” Val began.
“Drink,” Luce said.
“Maybe Rita is nice without all that make-up-“
“I said drink.” Lucy said with an authority that made Val shut up and down the shot.
That’s how their father found them when he returned an hour later. He glanced at his daughters, then rifled through the cabinet until he found a shot glass of his own.
“I probably should have given you some warning,” he said, filling his glass.
Lucy tried not to focus on the inexplicable goatee. He had aged well, looked the way he did in all of her memories, strong chinned, dimple in his left cheek, brown eyes flecked with gold. Clearly he still ran five days a week. Maybe the hair that had once been black-peppered-with-grey was now grey-peppered-with-black. But handsome, she thought. A prize to any woman his age, or even younger.
“Why now, Dad?” Lucy asked, tears blurring her vision. “The new car, the new woman, the facial hair and preppy new clothes. You don’t have some fatal disease, do you?”
He sipped his scotch. “Old age. It’s fatal, you know. Got to live while I can.”
Val tried to smile. “It’s a beautiful engagement ring,” she said, putting her hand on his rough knuckles. “Where did you meet?”
“Salsa class,” he said proudly.
Lucy dropped her head on the kitchen table.
Val pinched her sister’s thigh.
“So she has some spunk. Salsa class, I like that,” Val said. “We are looking forward to getting to know her, Dad.”
“Lucy?” her dad’s voice asked. She felt his hand on her shoulder.
“I think Lucy’s exhausted,” Val said. “She’ll be in better spirits tomorrow.”
“No.” Lucy lifted her face and stared at her dad.
It’s not that she hadn’t imagine this day, of course she had, since her mother first woke her up that early morning while he was at PT, with a cheery, cigarette-breath-goodbye, running out the door with a small suitcase to a red car that waited at the curb. Lucy wanted her dad to be happy. She tried to be the perfect kid to make up for her mother’s absence, her sister’s tantrums. She always imagined that her dad would fall for a woman with horn rimmed glasses who liked to tour Civil War sites and bake cookies, not some bottle-redhead who trolled salsa classes for lonely men.
But her dad was looking at her with such excitement, as if he really did think bringing that woman here was some kind of gift for them all. Lucy took a deep breath. “Well, there’s a lot to do around New Orleans,” she whispered.
It was the best she could do. Her dad stood up, hugged both girls again, and went off into the night.
“You hate her, don’t you?” Val asked when he was gone.
Lucy bit her tongue. “We’ll see.”