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Oct/Nov 2003 fiction

On the Eve of Leaving

by James Simpson


Photo-Art by Tara Gilbert-Brever

 

Pleasantly drunk at a quarter to midnight on Friday, dressed in shirtsleeves, tie loosened, he stood in the side yard of the house. All the windows were dark. He sighed a susurrant Shit.

The farewell party had started at the club after work, everyone wishing him well with the new post in Phoenix, presenting him with a set of clubs—nice Pings—saying they hated to see him go. Even the new girl, nervous, gulping her wine, said she would miss him. They'd slipped away to an empty dining room later; it was awkward, but he enjoyed the quickening newness. When she'd trotted off to the bathroom, he rejoined the others, and they begged him to play the piano, which he loved.

The house had sold quickly, and even now looked different in the unreal light of a half moon rising above the budding dogwoods on the hill behind him. Up close he saw the work he'd paid for: gleaming white clapboards and forest green shutters; new boxwoods squatting below the windows; geraniums, bright red in daylight, but in near-dark like pungent, gnarled fingers. He hadn't lived here in six months, and never would again. It already seemed a memory.

He wondered if his oldest—the girl, 15—had snapped off her light moments before he arrived. He cupped his ear as if to hear the rhythm of her breathing—and all in the house—to gauge the depth of sleep.

He imagined the boy, 9, waiting up, fighting sleep, then finally succumbing. His daughter, though, was the night owl, often reading well past midnight. He searched for pebbles to throw, then remembered the key—off its ring, solemn in his pocket. He fingered the worn, ratcheted edge and considered letting himself in—just a note or something to say he'd been there—but released the key.

Their divorce was amicable, he and his wife preparing for years as if it were inevitable. They had slowly drifted apart, it was true, and people always said that about breakups: so sad about so-and-so—they drifted apart, and he had always imagined these other couples riding in separate boats in the old Coney Island Tunnel of Love, sitting alone, hands resting on seats, shoulders rounded, slightly shocked.

His daughter's dark window reminded him of the one in their first apartment in Brooklyn, where he and his wife had brought her after she was born. In an alcove off the kitchen overlooking a grimy, weed-choked courtyard was an odd half-window they called "the dwarf window." They covered the glass with gray paint from a can in a closet, then moved a narrow bookcase in front of it. All of that seemed distant now, like another life. People always said that, too.

They explained the breakup to the children separately, and then as a family. There were lowered eyes, tears and questions, and the children trudged off to their rooms, the house hushed for the afternoon. That night he had begun living in the apartment across town.

One Saturday he arrived to take them to a movie, and overheard the boy on the back steps with a handful of daisies, plucking the petals: He loves us, he loves us not. He loves us, he loves us not, moving on to the next flower, unhappy with the outcome of the last. For weeks he believed Mom and Dad no longer enjoyed the same things (their simple explanation to him) so he began a list: Dad likes to ride bikes, Mom doesn't; Dad smokes, Mom quit; Dad likes to go to parties with his friends, Mom is tired of them all.

The daughter was his favorite: in her he saw himself. Intuitive beyond her years, she sometimes accompanied him on sales calls during the summer - striding through warehouses or sitting in offices, she was polite, asked intelligent questions, showed interest. She would tell him later, in the car, He doesn't like what he's doing, or He tried to sound tough because he's ashamed of his weight, and That man is afraid of being alone.

The light winked on. His daughter slid the window open, knelt down and crossed her arms on the sill, her chin resting on her wrist.

"How'd you know I was here?" he called up softly.

She yawned. "I had a dream about you."

"Good or bad?"

"Weird." Her small laugh floated down. "You were playing golf with your friends and I was caddying. Your ball landed among a bunch of little white rocks that looked like antique golf balls. You tried to pick one up, but there was more of it buried underground, so you dug it up. It came out the size of a cantaloupe, and when you turned it over and brushed it off it was a monkey skull. You gave it to one of your partners."

He laughed. "A monkey skull? I'd guess you had pizza for dinner again."

"Yeah. Sausage and pepperoni. That, and we're reading Hamlet in class. Alas, poor monkey. Weird."

He wondered about the feel of a monkey skull in his hands.

"How was the party?" she said.

"Interesting. The new girl threw up in the bathroom."

"Yuck."

"I played 'Yesterday,' that old Beatles song, on the piano. It was awful, everyone got sad, then the party broke up. I called here, but the busy message picked up."

"Yeah, Mom's still afraid she'll hang up on someone if she tries to pick up an incoming call. She was talking to Gramma. We might go visit them in Florida for Spring Break."

"That'll be nice."

"I should tell you," she paused a moment, looking out toward the street to her right. Then, gently, "With the party and all, we knew you weren't coming tonight. But it's okay. You can still stop by on your way to the airport."

He sighed. "I'm sorry. I really do love you."

"I know." She unfolded her arms and stood, then leaned her head down to the open window, "In the morning, Dad," and then lowered the sash.

He looked at his watch. 12:02. "It's morning already," he said, but the window was closed, the room dark again. She hadn't heard him.

 

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