Jul/Aug 2022  •   Fiction

Father's Day

by Christopher Villiers

Public Domain image

Rose's was the first place Dan and Virginia ate at when they moved to Portland, and they ended up there whenever it got too hot in the evenings—which was almost every night that summer. The café was loud, the lights too bright for their taste. Yet the air conditioning was always turned up high and the prices cheap. A few blocks away, it provided a ready escape from their apartment, which initially, seemed quaint and nice, being listed on the National Historic Register and all, yet turned out to be stuffy and confining since most of the windows were painted shut years before and the landlord unwilling to update the building, insisting doing so would tarnish its architectural integrity.

The waitress, wearing a candy-striped dress and heavy beige support hose, asked if she could freshen up Ginny's cup. Her name was Natalie, and she served them often.

Ginny smiled. "That'd be nice. And another slice of cheesecake. The one with the strawberries on top."

In another outfit, the waitress would have been a pretty young girl. In this clinical-looking getup—her hair pulled back tight in a bun, lipstick spread thick—she seemed more like a middle-aged woman, perfectly fitting in with of the cafe's regular patrons.

Ginny didn't ask Daniel if he wanted to go through with the operation. She never had. It wasn't his decision. Things might have been different if they were married, she told herself. But that's not what either of them wanted—she was certain of that. Virginia was completing her final trimester at Reed College, laboring through her senior thesis and working weekends to make ends meet.

She'd already landed an internship with the Department of Social and Health Services across the river, in Vancouver, and was applying to MSW programs at universities up and down the West Coast. If they got married, none of that would happen. She'd remain a sales girl at Meier & Frank. If lucky, she'd move from a part-time position in linens to a full-time spot in Town Square fashions, jewelry, or cosmetics.

She tried to explain that to Dan when the subject came up the previous week, but she didn't think she was successful. They were sitting in bed watching Johnny Carson—the bed being the most comfortable place to sit in their two-room apartment. Daniel was flipping through the sports page, glancing at box scores for the Mariners, the Giants, and Portland's own AAA team, all long out of contention. Virginia was thumbing through her college texts, half-heartedly preparing for her for midterms. They sat through most of the Tonight Show without talking. The musical act was on, a female singer in a beaded black dress singing the types of songs her father liked. Her voice was pleasant but not strong.

The camera followed her, switching repeatedly from wide shots highlighting her cleavage or to tight shots of her face framed by long brown hair. The sound was down low, and neither paid much attention. TV was on just to have a little noise in the background.

"We could get married," Dan said, finally breaking the silence. "That'd be a solution."

"Yeah. And what would I tell my grandmother five months from now?" Ginny didn't look up. She continued skimming through Aid To Dependent Families: Government's Influence on Family Structure in the United States, marking key sections with a yellow highlighter. "Married at twenty? I'd rather fuck a dog."

Dan laughed. Not a hearty laugh; more of an uncomfortable giggle. Ginny knew she'd hurt his feelings. That's not what she'd intended. She regretted making such a hasty comment. But she never regretted saying she didn't want to get married.

The waitress delivered the cheesecake. Ginny paid for the cake and ate in silence. They didn't say much more to each other the rest of the night, she only asking him not to cry. "I need you to be strong," she said as they walked home from the restaurant.

Dan woke early the next morning while it was still dark. He pushed a chair against the wall, pulled back the heavy flowered curtain, budged open the double-hung kitchen window, and sat smoking while Virginia slept. It made him feel good to stare at her in the morning—one arm tucked beneath her head, her blond curls spread across both their pillows. She looked peaceful, prettier than she ever had. Before the alarm went off, he unplugged the clock radio, an Emerson with numbers that clicked loudly every minute, and set a coffee pot to percolate on the stove. He'd wait a half-hour before waking her, giving Ginny more time to sleep... giving himself more time to watch some to watch something he knew was ending.

A cool breeze blew through the tiny opening in window, easing the oppressive heat that had started late in June and hung on longer than most Indian summers. The day felt fresh and new, almost like the short false springs in February, lulling everyone into believing the winter rains have ended.

He dressed without shaving and stepped outside to pick up the paper and chocolates from Delilia's. Not much of a breakfast, but he knew it would make Ginny happy. Flowers would be too sentimental.

Outside the Thriftway across the street, Dan glanced at the headlines in The Oregonian but didn't put a quarter in the box. Nothing he wanted to read. Just another eruption of St. Helens—one of those small tremblers and puffs of steam commonplace that summer—and a story about the elections. The paper was sending a writer to the upcoming Carter-Reagan debate, something his own newspaper—The Columbian—didn't have the clout or financial resources to pull off. Dan wished he had never come to Portland. He could have stayed home and taken a job at the newspaper in Bremerton or Bellevue. But Ginny was down here finishing school, and it was a chance to spend the summer together. Still, they argued most of the time. She was busy with her research; he hated his job.

Ginny was awake when he returned with a pint of berries and pan au chocolates. Two cups of coffee waited on their small kitchen table, served in the old china Ginny got from her grandmother, the cups with the wheat and gold lilies gilded along the edge. Virginia always drank out of the cup with a small chip on the rim. The sun beaming through the window made the China glow—the saucers looked milky white, the cups almost clear.

Ginny didn't say anything. She barely glanced over when Dan walked through the door. He could tell she was upset he hadn't woke her. They were instructed to show up early at the clinic.

"It's okay," he said, almost instinctively. "Doctors never arrive on time."

Ginny showered quickly, and they immediately headed out even though they had nearly an hour to walk the eight blocks to Lovejoy Women's Clinic. Cutting through Couch Park, they collected pinecones and chestnuts so Ginny could make Christmas wreaths later in the fall. They peeked in the window of stores along 23rd Avenue, and she tried on a blue-and-green sundress at Pricilla Ann's. It was the first time she wore loose-fitting clothes all summer, and that made her happy. She always squeezed into straight skirts that hugged her figure so nobody would guess anything was different.

"You should buy this for me," she laughed, standing in front of the mirror inside the old Victorian house converted into a hippie dress shop. "It's on sale. And it matches my eyes."

"I will," he promised. "Today, when you're at the doctor. I'll get it all wrapped up as a present." That made her smile.

The sales girl stepped out from behind the glass counter and asked if he wanted to put the dress on hold. That wouldn't be necessary, he told her as he took her business card. She scribbled the price and a description of the dress on the back. He'd be back in about an hour, he said.

When they got to the clinic, they still had 15 or 20 minutes to kill. No one had started gathering on the sidewalk. The waiting room was empty. So they kicked through the maple leaves outside Congregation Shaarie Torah. Daniel looked at the domed roof, the stained glass, the Hebrew carved in cement above the door. It reminded him of churches he visited in Europe when he was younger—dark, beautiful slightly forbidding. He'd never been inside a synagogue before. He wanted to go look at the architecture.

"They won't let us in," Virginia said. She didn't think it was appropriate. "We're Catholic."

"Hardly," he said.

She laughed but didn't think it was funny. "Besides, it's Saturday. There may be a service going on."

They crossed the street to the clinic, a one-story brown building that easily could have passed for a bank, insurance agency, or law firm. A large plate glass window, darkly tinted to block out the bright morning sun, lined the front. Only one other person was in the waiting room when they finally entered the clinic. Dan looked at her closely but couldn't figure her age. She sat calmly, staring through the window onto the sidewalk outside.

The room was quiet, quieter than most doctors' offices. Yellow wallpaper, suited equally well for a child's nursery or a medical building, tried to create upbeat mood. Photographs of landscapes—rugged mountains, dessert blooms, and surfs breaking over rocks—hung on the wall. Barely noticeable music played on the PA system. And the room smelled clean and antiseptic, like it was just wiped down with antibacterial soap. For a medical clinic, the only thing seeming out of place was a faded red Coke dispenser pushed tight against the receptionist's desk—not an electric vending machine but a metal chest-type dispenser like the kind at most gas stations in the early '60s, one with a steel bottle opener bolted on the outside right next to the coin slot for payments on the honor system.

Dan and Ginny sat on a couch flipping through People, Time, Redbook, and a copy of the Willamette Week four months out of date. They took turns glancing at a back issue of The New Yorker, pausing just long enough to read the cartoon on each page and nervously chuckle before turning the page. They were too preoccupied to read—she worried about what was about to happen; he worried about what would change. He couldn't conceive everything that would happen, but he knew nothing would be the same afterward.

Slowly, the waiting room swelled with patients—16 women, most younger than Ginny. Several accompanied by a man. One by her brother. Another by her husband. Later, in the recovery room, the woman with a husband told Ginny she had several children at home—two still in diapers.

A third girl came with her father. She opened the glass pane door slowly, quickly looked around the room, and grabbed the seat in the corner. Her dad walked in a few minutes later after parking the family car. A big man, he looked like a rancher, probably from eastern Oregon, his hands cut and callused from working with barbed wire and heavy equipment. The girl seemed about 15, barely old enough for high school, her red-brown hair parted down the middle and pulled back with a rubber band. Her father looked like he didn't want to be there. She fidgeted in her seat. Her father gave her a magazine and told her to relax.

Most of the others were accompanied by women—friends, sorority sisters, older aunts they could confide in. One came by herself.

Half an hour before the operation, a woman walked into the clinic. Everyone tried not to look at her. They could sense she was carrying a baby under her windbreaker, probably by the way she struggled with the front door. She whispered to the nurse at the reception desk, something about the baby having a fever.

The nurse hurried into the back and came back with a doctor. Pale, he looked worried like young fathers do the first time their children get sick. The baby cried. Everyone pretended not to notice. They stared at their magazines, not putting them down or turning the page until the nurse ushered the doctor and his family into the back room. The nurse pulled the door behind them, muffling the baby's cry but not making it completely go away.

At 11:00, the nurse herded the 16 women into the operating room and told everyone else they should come back in about three hours. "They know our schedule," she said in a calm voice. "They'll be here when your friends are ready to go home. Don't pay attention. Just walk past them and get into your cars."

Dan walked to a bar about a mile away toward the river. It was under a freeway offramp in the industrial district. He had three or four beers and listened to the pounding music. He didn't pay much attention to the girls as they stripped down to pasties or to the waitresses who offered to dance at his table and asked him to buy drinks. He wanted to be left alone. He no longer felt ambivalent about what was happening that day.

He returned to the clinic as protestors were gathering. Men pulled signs out of the back of Chevy station wagons; women slicked back their children's hair, making sure their daughters' dresses were straight, their sons' collars buttoned. They reminded Dan of the families at church when he was growing up—girls in thin, bright-colored jumpers, boys in white shirts and jackets handed down from older brothers and cousins.

Daniel went into the waiting room. Everyone was completely quiet. No one thumbed through old magazines. Instead, they stared at the people on the sidewalk. They could hear their chants, read their placards. Several signs didn't have words, just photocopies of a famous Life magazine cover from the mid-'60s taped to sheets of cardboard and covered in Saran Wrap to protect them from rain.

About 20 minutes later, the women filtered out of the recovery room. All looked drawn and pale. Virginia kissed Daniel but didn't say anything. She wasn't as lively as she was earlier in day when they walked up to the clinic, kicking their way through fallen leaves.

They stepped onto the sidewalk where 30 to 40 protestors had left just the legally prescribed amount of space for them to squeeze out the front door. Each talked loudly, shouting at them as they walked out of the clinic. A uniformed cop stood on the corner, watching. He didn't help anyone get through the crowd.

A woman stuck a pamphlet in Daniel's hand. She was pretty with long black hair and large brown eyes. She seemed to be about Ginny's age. "Happy Father's Day," she said. She didn't smile. Daniel felt like punching her. He didn't, and he didn't know why.

They kept walking. Daniel put his arm around Ginny and pulled her across the street away from the crowd. They walked several blocks without talking.

"What did that girl say to you back there?" Virginia asked as they turned off the main street, past a block of shops and coffeehouses built into some of the city's restored turn-of-the-century homes.

"I don't know," he said. "I wasn't listening." He stopped and held her tightly. He pressed his face against her shoulder and felt a warm tear on his cheek. They hugged for a long time, then started for home.

A light rain began to fall, the first rain of the long wet season. It felt good on their faces. They didn't button their coats.